Inter Press Service » Integration and Development Brazilian-style Turning the World Downside Up Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:32:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Flood of Energy Projects Clash with Mexican Communities Mon, 15 Sep 2014 15:22:02 +0000 Emilio Godoy Trees on the bank of the Blanco river that have been felled to make way for a power plant. Hydroelectric projects are threatening biodiversity and the way of life of communities in the state of Veracruz, in southeast Mexico. Credit: Courtesy of Comité de Defensa Libre

Trees on the bank of the Blanco river that have been felled to make way for a power plant. Hydroelectric projects are threatening biodiversity and the way of life of communities in the state of Veracruz, in southeast Mexico. Credit: Courtesy of Comité de Defensa Libre

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Sep 15 2014 (IPS)

Since January, villagers and townspeople near the Los Pescados river in southeast Mexico have been blocking the construction of a dam, part of a multi-purpose project to supply potable water to Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz.

“Our rights to a pollution-free life, to decide where and how we live, to information, to free, prior and informed consultation, are being infringed. We don’t want our territory to just be invaded like this any more,” Gabriela Maciel, an activist with the Pueblos Unidos de la Cuenca Antigua por Ríos Libres (PUCARL – Peoples of La Antigua Basin United For Free Rivers), told IPS.

PUCARL is made up of residents from 43 communities in 12 municipalities within the La Antigua river basin. Together with other organisations, it succeeded in achieving a suspension of work on the dam that was being built near Jalcomulco by Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, and the State of Veracruz Water Commission.

The dam has a planned capacity of 130 million cubic metres, a reservoir surface area of 4.13 square kilometres and a cost of over 400 million dollars. It is one of more than a hundred dams planned by federal and state governments, which are causing conflict with local communities.

Infrastructure building on a vast scale is under way in Mexico as part of the country’s energy reform. The definitive legal framework for this was enacted Aug. 11, opening up electricity generation and sales, as well as oil and gas extraction, refining, distribution and retailing, to participation by the domestic and foreign private sectors.

Nine new laws were created and another 12 were amended, implementing the historic constitutional reform that was promulgated Dec. 20.“Fossil fuels should not be given greater priority than a healthy environment. Zoning should be carried out, where possible, to indicate areas for exploitation and to establish constraints." -- Manuel Llano

The new energy framework is expected to attract dizzying sums in investments from national and international sources to Mexico, the second largest economy in Latin America, during the four-year period 2015-2018, according to official forecasts.

On Aug. 18 the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) announced 16 investment projects worth 4.9 billion dollars. Of this total, 27 percent is for public projects and 73 percent is earmarked for the private sector.

In the framework of the 2014-2018 National Infrastructure Programme (PNI), the CFE is planning 138 projects for a total of 46 billion dollars, including hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal energy generation plants, transmission lines and power distribution networks.

“Environmental and social legislation has been undermined in order to attract investment. Laws guaranteeing peoples’ rights and land rights have been weakened. This heightens the risk of a flare-up of social and environmental conflicts. It is a backward step,” Mariana González, a researcher on transparency and accountability for Centro de Análisis Fundar, an analysis and research centre, told IPS.

State oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) is programmed to carry out 124 projects as part of the PNI, totalling over 253 billion dollars. They include gas pipelines, improvements to refineries, energy efficiency measures at oil installations and oil exploration and extraction projects, among others.

The majority of the planned investments are slated for the southeastern state of Campeche, where 43 billion dollars will be spent on the exploitation and maintenance of four offshore oilfields.

In second place is the adjacent state of Tabasco, with projects amounting to nearly 15 billion dollars for shallow water oilfields and for the construction and remodelling of oil installations.

In Veracruz, PEMEX is planning investments of 11 billion dollars in shallow water offshore reserves and building and modernising oil installations, while in the northeastern state of

Tamaulipas it will spend 6.67 billion dollars on deepwater facilities and infrastructure modernisation.
Hydrocarbons licensing rounds

On Aug. 13, the Energy ministry (SENER) determined Round Zero (R-0) allocations, assigning PEMEX the rights to 120 oilfields, equivalent to 71 percent of national oil production which is to remain under state control.

PEMEX was also awarded 73 percent of gas production in R-0.

PEMEX’s current daily production is 2.39 million barrels of crude and 6.5 billion cubic feet of gas.

For Round One (R-1) concessions, SENER called for tenders from private operators for 109 oil and gas exploration blocks and 60 production blocks.

The government estimates the investment required for these projects at 8.52 billion dollars between 2015 and 2018, for exploration and extraction in deep and shallow waters, land-based oilfields and unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas.

The National Hydrocarbons Commission (CNH), the industry regulator, is preparing the terms for the concessions. Contracts will be assigned between May and September 2015.

Manuel Llano, technical coordinator for Conservación Humana, an NGO, cross-referenced maps of the detailed areas involved in Round Zero and Round One with protected natural areas, indigenous peoples’ and community territories.

He told IPS that the total land area assigned in R-0 is nearly 48,000 square kilometres, distributed in 142 municipalities and 11 states. Most of the assigned area is in Veracruz, followed by Tabasco. R-1 allocations cover 11,000 square kilometres in 68 municipalities and eight states.

The lands affected by R-0 overlap with 1,899 out of the country’s 32,000 farming communities. R-1 areas affect another 671 community territories, representing 4,416 square kilometres of collectively owned land.

Thirteen indigenous peoples living in an area of 2,810 square kilometres are affected by the R-0 allocations. Among the affected groups are the Chontal, Totonac and Popoluca peoples. The R-1 areas involve five indigenous peoples, including the Huastec, Nahuatl and Totonac, and more than 3,200 square kilometres of land.

“It’s hard to say exactly which places will be worst affected. There could be a great deal of damage in a very small area. It depends on the particular situation in each case. I can make reasonable estimates about what might occur in a specific concession area, but not in all of them,” Llano said.

Llano carried out a similar exercise in 2013, when he produced the “Atlas de concesiones mineras, conservación y pueblos indígenas” (Atlas of mining concessions, conservation areas and indigenous peoples). For this he mapped mining concession areas and compared them with protected areas and indigenous territories.

The new Hydrocarbons Law leaves land owners no option but to reach agreement with PEMEX or the private licensed operators over the occupation of their land, or accept a judicial ruling if agreement cannot be reached.

“The institutions have not carried out their work correctly. We know how the government apparatus works to get what it wants. We will oppose the approval of concessions and they will not succeed. We will continue our struggle. We are not alone; other peoples have the same problems,” said Maciel, the PUCARL activist.

Since March, several social organisations have taken collective legal action against government agencies for authorising the dam on La Antigua river and its environmental consequences. Los Pescados river is a tributary of La Antigua.

Between 2009 and 2013, SEMARNAT, the Environment and Natural Resources ministry, gave the green light to 12 hydroelectric and mini-hydropower plants on rivers in Veracruz. Construction has not yet begun on these projects.

Llano intends to compare maps of oil and gas reserves with the concession areas and contracts that are granted, in order to locate the potential resources claimed by the government and identify whether they match the bids at auction.

“Fossil fuels should not be given greater priority than a healthy environment. Zoning should be carried out, where possible, to indicate areas for exploitation and to establish constraints,” he said.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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Cuba Sees Its Future in Mariel Port, Hand in Hand with Brazil Fri, 22 Aug 2014 13:16:51 +0000 Patricia Grogg The container terminal administrative building in the port of the Mariel special economic development zone in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The container terminal administrative building in the port of the Mariel special economic development zone in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Aug 22 2014 (IPS)

The Mariel special economic development zone, the biggest construction project undertaken in decades in Cuba, emerged thanks to financial support from Brazil, which was based on political goodwill, a strategy of integration, and business vision.

“Cuba would not have been able to undertake this project from a technical or economic point of view,” economist Esteban Morales told IPS. He added that the geographic setting makes the development zone strategic in terms of trade, industry and services in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Brazil financed the construction of the container terminal and the remodeling of the port of Mariel, which is equipped with state-of-the-art technology to handle cargo from Post-Panamax container ships that will begin to arrive when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in December 2015.

Post-Panamax refers to vessels that do not fit in the current Panama Canal, such as the supertankers and the largest modern container and passenger ships.

The port, 45 km west of Havana, is located along the route of the main maritime transport flows in the Western hemisphere, and experts say it will be the largest industrial port in the Caribbean in terms of both size and volume of activity.

Construction of the terminal, in the heart of the 465 sq km special economic development zone, has included highways connecting the Mariel port with the rest of the country, a railway network, and communication infrastructure, and the port will offer a variety of services.

In the special zone, currently under construction, there will be productive, trade, agricultural, port, logistical, training, recreational, tourist, real estate, and technological development and innovation activities, in installations that include merchandise distribution centres and industrial parks.

The special zone is divided into eight sectors, to be developed in stages. The first involves telecommunications and a modern technology park where pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms will operate – two sectors which will be given priority in Mariel, along with renewable energies, agriculture and food, among others.

The Cuban government is currently studying the approval of 23 projects from Europe, Asia and the Americas for Mariel, in the chemical, construction materials, logistics and equipment rental industries.

The terminal was inaugurated on Jan. 27, and during its first six months of operation it received 57 ships and some 15,000 containers – small numbers compared to the terminal’s warehouse capacity of 822,000 containers. Post-Panamax vessels can carry up to 12,600 containers, three times more than Panamax ships.

Another economist, Pedro Monreal, estimates that the cost per container will be cut in half.

The lower costs, he said, will improve the competitiveness of Brazil’s manufactured goods, to cite one example. Mariel, where a free trade zone will also operate, could become a platform for production and export by the companies, even for supplying Brazil’s domestic market.

Heavy machinery prepares the terrain for a railway that will form part of the new infrastructure linked to the special development zone in the port of Mariel – the biggest project undertaken in Cuba in decades: Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Heavy machinery prepares the terrain for a railway that will form part of the new infrastructure linked to the special development zone in the port of Mariel – the biggest project undertaken in Cuba in decades: Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Although Decree Law 313, which created the special economic development zone, was passed in September 2013, the remodeling of Mariel began three years ago, led by a joint venture formed in February 2010 by the Compañía de Obras e Infraestructura, a subsidiary of the private Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, and Quality Cuba SA.

The container terminal is run by Global Ports Management Limited of Singapore, one of the world’s biggest container terminal operators, which has been working with the Cuban firm Almacenes Universales S.A, which is the owner and user of the terminal, and responsible for oversight of its efficient use.

The relationship between Cuba and Brazil is a longstanding one. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) did not hide his sympathies for the Cuban revolution, and has visited this country a number of times, first as a trade unionist and political party leader, and then as a president and former president.

Two packages of agreements signed in 2008 and 2010 between Lula and Cuban President Raúl Castro marked their interest in strengthening bilateral ties, an effort continued by current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

When she attended the inauguration of the terminal, Rousseff said the project would take 802 million dollars in the first stage, plus 290 million for the second stage. The first of Brazil’s loans was initially to go towards construction of the road, but the local government decided to start with the port.

The credit was granted by Brazil’s National Bank of Economic and Social Development (BNDES). Havana provided 15 percent of the investment needed for the work.

“Cuba is a priority for our government, and Brazil is important to Havana,” the director general of the Brazilian Agency for the Promotion of Exports and Investments (APEX-Brazil), Hipólito Rocha, told IPS.

APEX-Brazil was created by Lula and Castro to promote joint business ventures with Cuba, the rest of the Caribbean and Central America.

Odebrecht is the most important company involved in Mariel, but diplomatic sources told IPS that a total of around 400 Brazilian companies are taking part in the project. “Between our countries there is affinity, political will, an interest in integration, but business matters are also important,” Rocha said.

He added that Cuba strictly lives up to its financial commitments with Brazil, and said bilateral relations “are solid, sustainable and bring benefits to our country as well.”

Analyst Arturo López-Levy said Brazil’s involvement in the Mariel project was decisive not only because of the investment. The political scientist, who lives in the United States, says the Brazilian government is sending a message to Washington and the European Union and other emerging powers that it backs the transformations underway in Cuba.

The presidents of China, Xi Jinping, and Russia, Vladimir Putin, also sent out signals when they visited Cuba in July, indicating their interest in expanding cooperation with Havana.

The two presidents stopped over in Cuba when they travelled to the sixth summit of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), held Jul. 14-16 in Brazil.

The strengthening of ties promises greater access to the Chinese and Russian markets, attraction of investment in areas of common interest like the pharmaceutical and energy industries, and cooperation for the modernisation of strategic areas in defence, ports and telecommunications, López-Levy told IPS.

With respect to the possible interest of U.S. businesses in getting a foothold in the special economic development zone, and to an increase in pressure for the lifting of the five-decade U.S. embargo, the analyst said “the Cuban market awakens very limited interest in the United States.”

However, he said it was “clear” that U.S. investors are becoming more interested, especially Cuban-Americans.

“In order for this motivation to turn into political pressure against the embargo, the Cuban economy has to give out clear signs of recovery and of the government’s willingness, in key areas, to adopt a mixed economy with transparent guarantees for investors and export capacity,” he said.

Rocha has a somewhat different opinion.

“The embargo is going to collapse under its own weight,” he said. “Business will knock it down.”

It was seen as symbolic that the first ship that docked in the Mariel port after it began to operate brought food for Cuba from the United States – cash-only imports, which were authorised by the U.S. Congress in 2000.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Chile Taps Solar Thermal Energy with Latin America’s First Plant Tue, 05 Aug 2014 18:37:38 +0000 Marianela Jarroud Model of the Concentración Solar de Potencia de Cerro Dominador plant being built in the northern Chilean region of Antofagasta, which will begin to produce solar thermal energy in 2017. Credit: Abengoa Chile

Model of the Concentración Solar de Potencia de Cerro Dominador plant being built in the northern Chilean region of Antofagasta, which will begin to produce solar thermal energy in 2017. Credit: Abengoa Chile

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Aug 5 2014 (IPS)

With the first solar thermal power plant in Latin America, Chile hopes to begin to alleviate its energy crisis, which threatens to further drive up the high cost of electricity and to hinder the growth of investment, especially in the mining industry.

“We have a structural problem, which is that energy in Chile is very costly, and this not only represents a hurdle for economic growth but also hurts the poor,” government spokesman Álvaro Elizalde told Tierramérica.

This means, he added, “that we have to simultaneously increase the energy supply to bring down prices while promoting non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) sources.”

The Spanish company Abengoa Solar, which has been operating in Chile since 1987, won the public tender in January to develop a solar tower plant with 110 MW capacity and 17.5 hours of thermal energy storage in molten salt.

The Concentración Solar de Potencia de Cerro Dominador plant, which began to be built in May by the company’s local subsidiary, Abengoa Solar Chile, is to come online in 2017 and will have a useful life of 30 years.

The plant will cost one billion dollars to build, and an additional 750 million dollars will go towards the construction of a photovoltaic solar plant that will double the power generated to 210 MW, spokespersons for the company in Chile told Tierramérica.

Abengoa will receive direct subsidies from the Chilean government and the European Union, as well as financing from the Inter-American Development Bank, the German development bank KFW, the Clean Technology Fund and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

The plant is being installed in the municipality of María Elena, in the region of Antofagasta, 1,340 km north of Santiago in the Atacama desert, the most arid part of the planet, where the sun shines year-round.

The first solar thermal power plant in Latin America is being built in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, an area that has one of the highest levels of solar radiation in the world. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

The first solar thermal power plant in Latin America is being built in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, an area that has one of the highest levels of solar radiation in the world. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Instead of solar panels, the plant will use 10,600 huge mirrors – heliostats – that span 140 square metres and follow the sun by means of a dual-axis tracking system that will reflect solar rays and heat to a 243-metre tower which will bear a resemblance to Sauron’s tower in the Lord of the Rings movies.

To achieve continuous on demand 24/7 electricity production, the plant will have a thermal energy system designed and developed by the Spanish firm. The heat will be transferred to molten salt, which is used at night to drive 110-MW steam-powered turbines.

The plant will thus offer clean energy 24 hours a day, which is key in Antofagasta, where the constantly growing mining industry already absorbs 90 percent of the power supply in the production of mainly copper."Thermal solar plants are capable of generating and storing energy, and in practice that means they can operate around the clock for most of the year, solely based on energy from the sun.” -- Professor Roberto Román

The company’s spokespersons also say the plant will prevent the emission of 643,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the emissions of 357,000 vehicles circulating for one year. It should also fully cover the residential sector’s demand for energy in the region.

University of Chile Professor Roberto Román, an expert in NCRE, told Tierramérica that solar thermal energy has several advantages over other NCRE sources, and over photovoltaic systems.

He said thermal solar plants “are capable of generating and storing energy, and in practice, that means they can operate around the clock for most of the year, solely based on energy from the sun.”

In addition, “the power generation from these plants can be combined with other fuels, such as natural gas, to ensure 100 percent accessibility. That means the electricity needed can be generated according to demand, whenever it is needed,” he said.

“If these plants operate only with solar energy they produce zero emissions,” he added, while pointing out that it is a technology that is still being developed “which means there is space for research, development and innovation.

“This is what Spain has been doing over the last 20 years, and what I dream we will be capable of doing ourselves – harnessing the marvelous sunshine that is so abundant. There is enough sunshine here to supply all of Chile several times over,” Román said.

This South American country of 17.6 million people has 18,278 MW of gross installed capacity. Of that total, 74 percent is in the Sistema Interconectado Central (the central grid), 25 percent in the Sistema Interconectado Norte Grande (the northern grid), and the rest in medium-sized grids in the southern regions of Aysén and Magallanes.

Chile imports 97 percent of the fossil fuels that it needs. Hydropower makes up 40 percent of the energy mix, which is dependent on highly polluting fossil fuels that drive thermal power stations, for the rest.

This country’s shortage of energy sources has made the cost of electricity per megawatt/hour (MWh) in Chile one of the highest in Latin America: over 160 dollars, compared to 55 dollars in Peru, 40 in Colombia and 10 in Argentina.
Since she took office again in March, socialist President Michelle Bachelet has reiterated her commitment to developing NCRE sources: wind, geothermal, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic. The government’s target is for 20 percent of the country’s electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2025.

Solar power would appear to be the main focus of energy development in Chile over the next few years, as outlined in the “energy agenda” announced by the president on May 15.

In May, the government approved 43 projects for NCRE development, with the participation of local and international companies, all of them in northern Chile and most of them involving solar photovoltaic power plants.

They would generate a combined total of 2,261 MW a year, which would increase the country’s gross installed capacity by 12.3 percent, when they all come online.

Román cautioned that, in the case of solar thermal energy, “there are still many things that must be worked out, such as how the materials and elements will behave in the aggressive desert climate and how serious and complicated the question of dust and cleaning of the mirrors will be.”

He said this, added to other problems such as water scarcity in the desert, “drive the investment up to two or four times the cost of installing solar photovoltaic plants.”

But, he stressed, solar thermal plants produce “two or three times as much power, which means the real difference in the cost of the energy is not that big.

“Because of all this, I see it as a fantastic option,” Román said. “We should jump on the bandwagon of research and development in this area, with collaboration from other countries of course, and take our place in the field of technological development.”

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Nicaragua Pins Hopes for Progress on Grand Canal Fri, 01 Aug 2014 16:25:10 +0000 Jose Adan Silva Three farmers study the route for the interoceanic canal on a map of Nicaragua, which the Chinese firm HKND Group presented in the southern city of Rivas during a meeting with people who will be affected by the mega-project. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

Three farmers study the route for the interoceanic canal on a map of Nicaragua, which the Chinese firm HKND Group presented in the southern city of Rivas during a meeting with people who will be affected by the mega-project. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Víctor Sánchez doesn’t want gold or the comfortable future income he was promised.

He just wants to live the life he has always lived on his farm along the Banks of the Las Lajas river – but the river is slated to become part of the route followed by the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal.

Sánchez, a 59-year-old small-scale farmer from the southwestern department or state of Rivas, told IPS that he isn’t familiar with the details of the mega-project that the government touts as the ticket for this country to lose its dubious status as the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.

He is worried that he will be removed from the land where he has always lived with his extended family, and that he won’t receive compensation for his property.

That’s what he told representatives of the HKND Group at a Jul. 15 meeting in the International University of Agriculture and Livestock in Rivas. HKND is the Hong Kong-based Chinese company that was granted the concession to build the canal.

The Chinese technicians, with the support of interpreters and Nicaraguan officials, provided details of the ambitious project to a local audience in the city of Rivas, the departmental capital, 110 km south of Managua.

The canal will connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by means of a 278 km waterway, which includes a 105 km stretch across Lake Cocibolca.

The numbers involved are impressive: the canal will cost 50 billion dollars to build and will be up to 520 metres wide, with a monimum depth of 27.6 metres and a maximum of 30 metres. An estimated 5,100 vessels a year will make the 30-hour crossing through the canal.

Pang Kwok Wai, assistant director of HKND’s department of construction management, explained that the work is set to begin in December in the municipality of Brito, in Rivas, on the Pacific coast.

The department will be split in half by the canal and part of the local population will be relocated.

The project will create a city of 140,000 people on the Pacific side of the country. A 29 sq km duty-free zone will also be established in Rivas, along with four tourist complexes, an international airport with warehouse capacity for thousands of tons of cargo, a deepwater port, giant bridges and other “sub-projects” in the terminology used by HKND.

In June 2013, the government of leftwing President Daniel Ortega granted the concession for HKND Group to build and run the canal for 50 years, extendable by another 50 years.

The government argues that the canal will definitively transform the economy of this Central American nation, where 42.5 percent of the population of 6.1 million lives in poverty and 70 percent of jobs are in the informal economy.

Telémaco Talavera, the president of the National Council of Universities and a member of the Special Commission for the Grand Canal, told IPS that to carry out the work, large industrial companies will be created that will require local labour power: 50,000 direct jobs during the construction phase and 200,000 permanent jobs after 2019, when the canal is to be completed.

HKND also announces the construction of new cement, steel, dynamite, asphalt, fuel and energy plants.

The Nicaraguan government estimates that as a result of the construction work, GDP growth will accelerate from the current four-five percent to 10.8 percent in 2014 and 15 percent in 2015.

The government projects that GDP will climb from 11.2 billion dollars to 24.7 billion dollars in 2018.

HKND Group, led by the mysterious Chinese businessman Wang Jing, has given the world the impression that the project is a sure thing, from its news releases.

But doubts about the company, and especially about the fund created to finance the canal, are far from being cleared up.

The company says it hired the China Railway Construction Corporation to carry out the technical feasibility studies, the U.S. McKinsey & Company for the information analysis and the UK-based Environmental Resources Management consultancy for the social and environmental impact assessments.

HKND technical experts have repeated in public and private meetings in Nicaragua and China that the company invited businesspeople from China, Russia, the UK, the United States, Germany, Belgium and Australia to support the project.

Hopes for the future…and doubts

The canal has raised hopes among thousands of Nicaraguans for a more prosperous future, according to two national surveys.

One of the pollsters, MyR Consultores, found in a July poll that 31.3 percent of respondents thought the canal would bring benefits to a smaller or greater extent.

Another survey, by the Americas Barometer of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University in the U.S., presented in Managua this month as well, found that 72.8 percent of those interviewed stressed the generation of jobs by the canal as a potential benefit.

But 43.4 percent of respondents were worried about the environmental effects that the project could have.

That fear is shared by dozens of environmentalists and non-governmental organisations, like the Nicaraguan Foundation for Sustainable Development, which under the leadership of biologist Jaime Incer, environmental adviser to the president of Nicaragua, is opposed to the construction work with the argument that it will irreversibly affect Lake Cocibolca.

The lake is the biggest in Latin America: 8,624 sq km of freshwater. According to the organisation’s estimates, the construction of the canal would affect 400,000 hectares of jungle and wetlands.

Incer told IPS that Nicaragua gave HKND authority over the lake and surrounding areas, which include more than 16 watersheds and 15 protected areas representing 25 percent of the country’s rainforest.

HKND Group has not yet completed its environmental impact studies. Nevertheless, it has already decided on the route to be followed by the canal, as well as the construction of a 400 sq km artificial lake and 41 giant deposits along the route to store the earth that is removed.

Another aspect criticised by opponents is the lack of transparency surrounding the project’s financing. Detractors have not received any response to their questions about who is financing the project and how they operate.

The company and its executives in Nicaragua, as well as the Nicaraguans in charge of the project, have avoided revealing the identity of their sources of financing.

“The fund is guaranteed, but it is confidential; these matters are business secrets, especially because of the companies that trade on the stock market,” said HKND’s Pang.

Talavera, with the Special Commission for the Grand Canal, told IPS that the important thing at this time is to explain to the population the reach of the mega-project and to guarantee that it brings benefits for the country. “The details about the financing will be provided when the time is right, if the financing partners decide on that,” he said.

The country’s refusal to reveal information about the partners and the origin of the funds has given rise to speculation. For example, opposition lawmaker Eliseo Núñez has insinuated that the Chinese government is behind the project – a suspicion that Wang Jing has consistently denied.

Edited by: Estrella Gutiérrez / Translated by: Stephanie Wildes

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Cash Transfers Drive Human Development in Brazil Thu, 31 Jul 2014 13:49:41 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz The Morro de Vidigal favela in Río de Janeiro. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

The Morro de Vidigal favela in Río de Janeiro. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

Every day, Celina Maria de Souza rises before dawn, and after taking four of her children to the nearby school she climbs down the 180 steps that separate her home on a steep hill from the flat part of this Brazilian city, to go to her job as a domestic. In the evening she makes the long trek back up.

For 25 years, Souza has lived at the top of the Morro Vidigal favela or shantytown, located in the middle of one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro.

In this favela, home to some 10,000 people, the houses, many built by the families themselves, are squashed between the sea and a mountain.

Originally from Ubaitaba, a town in the northeast state of Bahia1,000 km north of Rio de Janeiro, Souza, 44, left her family when she was just 17 to follow her dream of a better life in the big city.

She was part of the decades-long massive wave of people fleeing drought in the impoverished Northeast to make a living in the more industrialised south.

“I’m tired of living in the favela,” she complained to IPS. “I dream of one day having a house with a room for each of my kids. I tell them to be responsible and to study so they won’t suffer later. I wish I could go back to school, but it’s hard for me to find the time.”

Souza, a mother of six children between the ages of 12 and 23 – the oldest two have moved out – has a monthly income of around 450 dollars a month.“This money helps me a lot. They criticise it, saying it’s charity, but I don’t see it like that. You have to work too. With the Bolsa money, I buy school supplies, food, and clothes and shoes for my children. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a huge help.” - Celina Maria de Souza

Nearly half of that comes from Bolsa Familia, a cash transfer programme created by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) when he first became president and continued by his successor Dilma Rousseff.

In 2013 Bolsa Familia reached its 10th anniversary as the leading social programme in this country of 200 million people.

It benefits 13.8 million families, equivalent to 50 million individuals – precisely the number of people who have been pulled out of extreme poverty over the last decade.

But 21.1 million Brazilians are still extremely poor, according to the latest official figures, from 2012.

The International Social Security Association (ISSA), based in Switzerland, granted a prize to Bolsa Familia in October for its contribution to the fight against poverty and support for the rights of the most vulnerable.

According to ISSA, it is the world’s largest cash transfer scheme, with a cost of just 0.5 percent of Brazil’s GDP. The programme’s 2013 budget was 10.7 billion dollars, and it is currently part of the Brasil Sem Miséria (Brazil Without Poverty) umbrella programme.

“I had heard of it and they told me it was a subsidy that the government gave kids who were enrolled in school and vaccinated regularly. We were really doing badly, we didn’t even have enough to eat,” Souza said.

For over a decade, her children have benefited from Bolsa Familia. The family initially received a total of just 40 dollars, but the amount has steadily increased. Souza, who has been married twice, has raised her children alone since breaking up with her second husband.

“This money helps me a lot,” she said. “They criticise it, saying it’s charity, but I don’t see it like that. You have to work too. With the Bolsa money, I buy school supplies, food, and clothes and shoes for my children. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a huge help.”

Souza hasn’t forgotten the days when she went hungry, or the occasional nights when she had no roof over her head – both she and her two older children, when she separated from her first husband. “I told my children: eat, because just seeing you get some food nourishes me,” she said. Now she and the four children still at home live in a crowded two-room house.

The residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, many of which are built on steep hillsides, climb up and down long stairways every day like this one in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

The residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, many of which are built on steep hillsides, climb up and down long stairways every day like this one in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Souza, who had very little formal schooling, works mainly in the informal sector, although when she first came to the city she found a job in a women’s accessories factory. She is constantly battling poverty, and hopes that her children will have better opportunities.

She is one of the innumerable examples of Brazilians who are trying to improve the lives of their families, while this country attempts to revert years of neglect and a historical lag in human development.

Thanks to this effort, South America’s giant has moved up on the Human Development Index (HDI).

In the latest HDI report, released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Jul. 24, Brazil ranked 79 among the 187 countries covered.

But in Latin America, Brazil is behind Chile (41), Cuba (44), Argentina (49), Uruguay (50), Panama (65), Venezuela (67), Costa Rica (68) and Mexico (71).

Andréa Bolzon, coordinator of the Atlas of Human Development in Brazil, told IPS that the country has made significant progress in the last 20 years.

The Atlas draws up Brazil’s contribution to the Human Development Report, which includes the HDI. The theme of this year’s report was Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience.

Underlying the improvement, she said, “are policies that were implemented, like the increase in the minimum salary, affirmative action measures to reduce racial inequality, the boost to employment and Bolsa Familia itself.”

The HDI, created in 1980, is a measure derived from life expectancy, education levels and incomes. In 2013, life expectancy in Brazil averaged 73.9 years, schooling averaged 7.2 years, and gross national income per capita was 14,275 dollars.

Between 1980 and 2013, Brazil’s HDI value increased 36.4 percent. In 1980 life expectancy was 62.7 years, schooling averaged 2.6 years and GNI per capita was 9,154 dollars.

“Brazil is one of the countries whose human development has improved the most over the past 30 years,” said UNDP representative in Brazil Jorge Chediek during the presentation of the data in Brasilia.

But inequality is still a huge problem in Brazil, Bolzon said. “We have to invest in universal quality public systems, especially in health and education, because they have effects on other indicators.”

The increase in the years of schooling among families is precisely one visible change, she said.

“We see it from generation to generation in the same family,” she said. “People who studied very little have children who have more years of schooling; there is a big difference in terms of education.”

Souza and her family fit that pattern: she has a fifth grade education, while her 12-year-old daughter is in sixth grade today.

“I studied very little; I had to drop out when I was 12 to work, because I had to help my parents put food on the table,” said Souza. “I want my kids to have much more than I had – a good education and good jobs.”

Isis, her youngest daughter, knows all about the difficulties her mother has faced and the sacrifices she makes in order for them to have a better life. “I love going to school, and I love math. When I come home, I help my mom and I tidy up the house. My mom tells us to study a lot to have a better futrue. I know what her life has been like, and I do that,” she told IPS with a smile.

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Argentina Once More on the Map, Invited by BRICS Wed, 18 Jun 2014 18:55:43 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet “Family photo” at the fifth BRICS Summit, held in 2013 in Durban, South Africa. Credit: Government of South Africa

“Family photo” at the fifth BRICS Summit, held in 2013 in Durban, South Africa. Credit: Government of South Africa

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, Jun 18 2014 (IPS)

As Argentina starts to mend fences with the international financial markets, the emerging powers that make up the BRICS bloc invited it to their next summit. This could be a step towards this country’s reinsertion in the global map, after its ostracism from the credit markets since the late 2001 debt default.

For now, there is no letter “A” in the BRICS acronym, which stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. But in Buenos Aires speculation is rife about whether it should be called BRICSA, ABRICS or BRICAS, if Argentina is admitted.

The invitation for President Cristina Fernández to participate in the group’s sixth summit, scheduled for Jul. 15 in the northeast Brazilian city of Fortaleza, is seen as another sign that Latin America’s third-largest economy may be incorporated, after India, Brazil and South Africa indicated their interest.

“This is very significant for Argentina,” Fernanda Vallejos, an economist at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), told IPS.

“It not only points to the recognition by the rest of the members of Argentina’s importance and potential, but also opens a door for our country to gain greater political and economic clout on the international stage.”

Vallejos stressed the key role played by BRICS over the last decade in the growth of the global economy at a time of financial crisis in the industrialised North.

The term BRICS was coined for the world’s major emerging markets in 2001 by economist Jim O’Neill of investment bank Goldman Sachs. Together, these countries represent around one-quarter of global GDP, 43 percent of the planet’s population, and 20 percent of global investment.

In addition, as Argentina’s foreign ministry stressed, the five countries account for 45 percent of the world’s labour force, hold over three trillion dollars in combined foreign reserves, and produce two billion tonnes a year of agricultural products.

Vallejos said that in a world where blocs are playing a bigger and bigger role, BRICS has a growing voice in international forums, where the members are “demanding participation in accordance with the weight of their economies.”

“The proposal set forth by India – with which bilateral trade expanded 30 percent in 2013 – and backed by Brazil and South Africa also puts paid to the opposition’s tired complaint about our country supposedly being isolated from the world,” said Vallejos, who is also a researcher at the Energy, Technology and Infrastructure Observatory for Development (OETEC).

The formal invitation to Fernández was issued by Russia, which also thus confirmed its support.

“I think this shows that Argentina is fully inserted in international relations, not ‘isolated from the world’,” Nicolás Tereschuk, a political scientist at UBA, told IPS. “It simply doesn’t toe the line with the policies of the central countries at just any cost or in any circumstances, as it used to do at other times in its history.”

Argentina’s invitation from BRICS came almost simultaneously with the May 28 announcement of an agreement reached by the Fernández administration and the Paris Club, which this country owed 9.7 billion dollars since the default 13 years ago.

Some political sectors here see the public debt contracted by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship as illegitimate. But the centre-left Fernández administration hopes the agreement with the Paris Club will facilitate the renewed flow of international credit and investment.

Economist Diego Coatz said the agreement and other measures adopted by the government such as “improving” its economic data, whose reliability was questioned by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), point to a “shift” by the authorities aimed at “reintegration in the world in financial terms…and at positioning the country better on the international front.”

Coatz, with the research centre of the Argentine Industrial Union – the country’s leading industrial employer federation – said that if Argentina is admitted to the BRICS bloc, “it will once more be seen as an emerging developing country with great potential.”

In addition, incorporation in the bloc would open a new window for external financing, when Argentina is in need of foreign exchange and investment, he said.

At the Fortaleza summit a formal decision could be reached on creating a regional development bank as an alternative to international financial institutions like the IMF, World Bank or Interamerican Development Bank.

The new bank would have a 50 billion dollar fund for financing infrastructure in the bloc’s member countries. It would also establish a joint foreign exchange reserves pool of 100 billion dollars, “which would serve as insurance against the volatility of the markets,” Vallejos said.

“Argentina could access financing at very beneficial rates compared to the heavy interest rates of other international institutions” in order to finance infrastructure for development, she underscored.

“The strengthening of international trade by the possible admission to BRICS means important possibilities for Argentina to make significant progress towards a more developed industrial sector, with insertion in global production chains, the development of strategic sectors and the industrialisation of the countryside,” Vallejos said.

The interest would appear to be mutual.

“The invitation came after the turmoil in emerging markets early this year, after which the ‘establishment’ international financial press talked about a ‘decline’ of BRICS,” Tereschuk said.

In addition, “growth in China is slowing down, India is at a decisive moment, with the dilemma of faster growth or stagnation, and the Brazilian economy is not really flourishing at this time,” the economist said.

So for them and the rest of the members of the bloc, “joining together with a periphery country that makes up the G20 [Group of 20] would seem to be a decision of interest to the BRICS countries,” he said.

The G20 block of leading industrialised and emerging economies “is in somewhat of a crisis itself, because of the crisis that the central countries are still immersed in.”

For that reason, according to Tereschuk, Argentina would be useful to the BRICS so that the voice of their two South American leaders, Argentina and Brazil, “would be heard in unison in the greatest number of places possible.”

The political scientist said Brazil and Argentina have led a “shift to the left with growth, reduction of poverty and inequality in a framework of democracy and greater political, civilian and social rights for their citizens.

“The other members of BRICS cannot offer all of these characteristics combined,” he said.

Vallejos, for her part, stressed Argentina’s role as a supplier of raw materials. “We are an agricultural powerhouse,” she pointed out.

In addition, “Argentina has the world’s second-largest reserves of lithium, one of the biggest reserves of gold – nearly 10,000 tonnes – 500 million tonnes of copper, and 300,000 tonnes of silver, while we are becoming the third-largest global exporter of potassium,” she said.
“We are sitting on the world’s third- largest platform of unconventional fossil fuels. And to that you have to add our technological development, and the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” she added.
So would it be “BRICAS”, “ABRICS” or “BRICSA”? At any rate, what is at stake is a bit more than deciding on a new acronym.

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Protests Dampen World Cup Fever in Brazil Fri, 06 Jun 2014 20:27:56 +0000 Mario Osava A football game in Jacarezinho, one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. For children from these poor neighbourhoods, the pomp surrounding the World Cup is a distant echo. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

A football game in Jacarezinho, one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. For children from these poor neighbourhoods, the pomp surrounding the World Cup is a distant echo. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 6 2014 (IPS)

It seemed like “a good deal” at the time, but then things changed. That description of the 2006 purchase of a U.S. refinery, one of the oil industry scandals hanging over the Brazilian government’s head, could also apply to attitudes towards the FIFA World Cup.

In 2007, the fact that Brazil was chosen to host the 2014 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) global championship triggered a sense of national euphoria. The mega sporting event would crown the economic ascent of this emerging power, which has won the most World Cups – five out of 18.

But now, instead of planning welcome parties for the Jun. 12-Jul. 13 tournament, Brazilians are taking to the streets in protests that are blocking traffic and bringing cities to a halt, holding strikes to demand wage hikes, and complaining about corruption and rights violations during the public works to prepare for the global event.

The country of football and joy is turning its back on its stereotype.

In Rio de Janeiro, the few streets decorated in green and yellow – the colours of the national team – contrast with the celebrations and sense of anticipation ahead of previous World Cups. The enthusiasm has been dampened just when Brazil is hosting the world’s biggest single-sport event.

The indignation of Brazilians erupted in June 2013, with surprising and often violent protests against the poor performance of the health and education systems, chaotic traffic, corruption, and the enormous amounts being spent on preparations for the World Cup.

Worried about further unrest, the government has ordered the deployment of 157,000 police and military troops to guarantee security during the games that will be held in 12 cities in this enormous country of nearly 200 million people.

But the declining excitement over football “is a tendency that has been seen in the last three World Cups,” said Paulo Santos, who has worked as a barber for 40 years in a lower middle-class Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood and hears the views of hundreds of clients, in a kind of ongoing informal opinion poll.

Hosting the World Cup should have revived the passion of fans.

But “they’re holding the party with other people’s money – ours,” complained Santos, reflecting the widespread sensation that the whole exercise has been marked by corruption, the squandering of public funds and FIFA’s greed.

Surveys reflect this view. In February, only 52 percent of those interviewed by the Datafolha polling institute were in favour of organising the World Cup, down from 79 percent in 2008.

The most recent poll, limited to the southern city of São Paulo, found that 45 percent of respondents were in favour and 43 percent were against, while the rest said they didn’t care. But worse than that was the fact that an overwhelming majority, 76 percent, said they thought the country wasn’t prepared to host the marathon of 64 games among 32 national teams.

Many of the projects planned, especially the urban transport works, were not carried out or were left incomplete. Some of the 12 stadiums were not finished until the last minute, without the finishing touches and without being tested. Half of them lack wireless Internet connection.

Delays in infrastructure works are a tradition in Brazil. The same thing happened in the first World Cup, held in Brazil in 1950. The main stadium, Maracaná in Rio de Janeiro, was inaugurated only a few days before the event, in the midst of a muddy construction site littered with left-over materials.

It was the world’s largest stadium. Designed for 155,250 spectators, it held a crowd of over 200,000 in the final match. Now, remodelled and sumptuous, it holds just under 74,700 people.

But the current megalomania is different. Since the last decade, Brazil has been caught up in a frenzy of building hydropower dams, railways, ports, highways and freeways, in an attempt to overcome the infrastructure deficit accumulated over the preceding two decades.

Most of the major projects are years behind. The main railway, a 4,155-km north-south route, has been under construction for 27 years, with only one-third of the rails installed.

Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium, remodelled for the World Cup. Excessive spending on the installations is one of the complaints being voiced by protesters in Brazil. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium, remodelled for the World Cup. Excessive spending on the installations is one of the complaints being voiced by protesters in Brazil. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

But no delays are possible in the case of the preparations for the World Cup in 12 cities and for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The looming deadlines may have been a factor in some of the accidents that have caused the deaths of nine workers in the World Cup stadiums, seven of them employed by subcontractors.

The rise in the number of workers concentrated in large construction sites all around the country has empowered construction workers. After a number of strikes, they secured wage hikes and benefits such as more frequent visits home for those who are working in distant regions.

But working conditions are still unsafe and accidents have been frequent, almost always due to lack of protection measures such as safe scaffolding, said Vitor Filgueiras, an economist investigating the phenomenon in his postdoctoral research.

Outsourcing is “a way of transferring risks,” and it makes working conditions even more unsafe and can even give rise to slave-like labour, he argued.

The World Cup has been a common focus for the recent protests and strikes by students, teachers, bus drivers and other groups. But popular support for the street demonstrations and battles has dropped sharply, according to opinion polls – luckily for the government of Dilma Rousseff.

A year ago, 54 percent of those surveyed by the Vox Populi Institute supported the protests, compared to just 18 percent today.

That reduces the risk of massive demonstrations during the World Cup itself. But groups made up of a few dozen activists are now paralysing cities, in a kind of guerrilla warfare benefited by the constant traffic jams.

The October presidential and legislative elections are also politicising football. The World Cup and the government are linked in the public’s mind. A failure for Brazil, in the stadiums or in the organisation of the event, would drive up the number of votes for the opposition.

The president is still the clear front-runner, but football has taken on growing influence in the elections, added to other government initiatives that also sounded like a good idea at the time – but don’t any longer.

For example, the purchase of a refinery in Pasadena, Texas by Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras was supposed to boost the firm’s international expansion and enable it to refine heavy crude in the U.S. market.

But it cost three times the initial contract for 360 million dollars, and became less important because Brazil increased its production of light crude oil. The case is under investigation by oversight bodies and amplified other scandals involving Petrobras.

Measures to reduce the cost of electricity in 2012 and benefit both industry and households also turned out to be a disaster. They encouraged consumption at a time when a lengthy drought reduced hydropower generation, unleashing an energy crisis, with the threat of power outages.

The discontent, also fuelled by a high inflation rate and a sluggish economy, infected the World Cup, which was already affected by specific factors of its own. FIFA’s demands for extraordinary terms and conditions created “a state of emergency,” wrote labour judge Lygia Cavalcanti in the magazine published by the Judges for Democracy Association.

Brazil agreed to “a temporary suspension” of certain laws guaranteeing citizens’ freedom of movement and workers’ right to strike in order to hold the World Cup, she said.

In addition, FIFA was given exclusive rights to advertise, sell and distribute products within a two-kilometre radius around the stadiums, local residents were evicted and relocated, and 18,000 volunteers have been organised to work during the World Cup, even though under Brazilian law volunteer work can only be used by non-profit cultural, civic or welfare institutions.

In addition, FIFA was given the right to file and fast-track registration of any trademark it wanted relating to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil’s patent office, including around 200 commonly used words, expressions and symbols such as names using “2014”, like “Brazil 2014” or “Natal 2014”, which can only be used commercially this year if fees are paid to FIFA.

FIFA even charged the Alzirão Recreational and Cultural Association 28,000 reals (12,500 dollars) to organise the popular street party it has held since 1978 in Rio de Janeiro, where the Brazil matches are shown on a giant screen

Alzirão was going to have to pay broadcasting rights, because more than 30,000 people a day watch the games on the big screen.

But Mayor Eduardo Paes managed to convince FIFA to exempt the non-profit event, said Ricardo Ferreira, president of the cultural association.

Ferreira told IPS that the excitement for the World Cup “was lukewarm but is growing.” A triumph by Brazil in the opening game in the São Paulo’s Corinthians stadium could cheer people up and bring back the passion, he added.

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Lagging Urban Transport Works Hinder World Cup Sustainability Thu, 15 May 2014 01:28:15 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz Stands in the Arena Dunas in the city of Natal in Northeast Brazil, one of the eight FIFA World Cup stadiums granted a sustainable construction certificate. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Stands in the Arena Dunas in the city of Natal in Northeast Brazil, one of the eight FIFA World Cup stadiums granted a sustainable construction certificate. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

By Fabiola Ortiz
NATAL, Brazil, May 15 2014 (IPS)

Brazil’s efforts to promote the image of an environmentally sustainable World Cup have focused on the stadiums built for the tournament. But the 12 cities where the matches will be played are in a race against time to complete the urban transport projects.

Natal, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte in the Brazilian Northeast, is one of the cities that will host the World Cup 2014, and four games will be played here. This city of 800,000 people is known in this country as the “city of the sun” because there are more than 300 days of sunshine a year, enjoyed by visitors to the state’s 400 km of beaches.

This is the city with the cleanest air in South America, according to a study carried out in 1994 by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in partnership with the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Water quality here is also excellent, because the water is “filtered” by the vast dunes surrounding the city.

Natal, which receives 1.5 million tourists a year, is now seeking an image of a sustainable city during the World Cup, which will take place in Brazil Jun. 12-Jul. 13.

The Arena Dunas stadium in Natal was officially inaugurated on Jan. 22, with a capacity for 42,000 spectators. The cost went 30 percent over the 190 million dollar budget, but at least the project is considered environmentally sustainable.

The OAS construction company, which built and is managing the stadium, will harvest rainwater, which will cut water consumption by 40 percent. And nearly 100 percent of the waste generated will be recycled.

In contrast with how early the stadium was finished, the urban transport works in the city run the risk of not being completed by the World Cup kickoff match on Jun. 13 – which could hurt the image of Natal as a sustainable World Cup city.

Unfinished transportation works around the stadium in Natal where the first of the four FIFA World Cup matches to be hosted by this city will take place on Jun. 13. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Unfinished transportation works around the stadium in Natal where the first of the four FIFA World Cup matches to be hosted by this city will take place on Jun. 13. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Of the seven transport projects planned, only one was completed, a year ago. At that time the remaining six were still only on paper, and three ended up being cancelled, after the city government admitted that it was unable to implement them.

The mayor of Natal, Carlos Eduardo Alves of the opposition Democratic Labour Party (PDT), told IPS that the city would be ready to host the World Cup thanks to 250 million dollars in federal funds.

“When Natal was chosen to be one of the host cities, it had 53 months to build the infrastructure and complete the projects. When I took office in January 2013, there were only 18 months to go, and nothing had started yet,” he said.

A total of 1,450 people are employed in shifts, 24/7, on the infrastructure projects.

Organised citizens one, expropriations zero

In 2012, the people of Natal were taken by surprise by the announcement that on Capitão Mor Gouveias avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, the property of 3,000 residents and 200 business owners was to be expropriated to make way for the construction of a road from the new airport to the stadium.

“One morning an official came to my business and handed me a letter informing me that half of the 200 square metres of my shop would be expropriated. He did so in a rude manner, and I was indignant. So we decided to fight the measure,” Jonas Valentim, 73, told IPS.

Valentim’s business has operated there for 30 years, and he was scared. “When we found out that the World Cup would be coming here, we were happy. But it was because we didn’t know it would deal us such a blow.”

He became one of the representatives in Natal of the “association of people affected by the World Cup works” (APAC), created in 2012 He is also a member of the World Cup People’s Committee, which has protested that the infrastructure works are not in line with the needs of the city.

In the case of Capitão Mor Gouveia avenue, the local residents and business owners managed to avoid forced eviction by asking specialists at the regional university to help draw up an alternative project, since the authorities had not consulted experts.

“We made suggestions to use avenues with less traffic, where no expropriations would be necessary,” said Valentim. That is the project currently being implemented – and no one has been evicted.

Alves guaranteed that six tunnels and a viaduct would be finished by May 31. A second viaduct won’t be done on time, but it will nevertheless be open to traffic during the World Cup.

“Natal won’t end after the World Cup,” the mayor said. “It will leave us with the biggest drainage system in the city, which cost 60 million dollars, and which will be 70 percent complete by the start of the World Cup.”

He added that 4,000 trees would be planted around the city.

He also said the big problem facing Brazilian cities today is traffic congestion, which is why tunnels and viaducts are being built, to ease traffic jams.

But the coordinator of transport research in the Civil Energy Department of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Enilson Medeiros dos Santos, doubts that the six transport construction projects around the stadium will be finished in time for the tournament.

“I don’t think they’ll be completed,” Santos said. “The viaduct of the BR-101 freeway [next to the stadium] was not in the original project and doesn’t stand a chance of being finished – work got started on it really late.”

Santos, a prominent voice in urban planning in Natal, complained that his team was not consulted when the transport plans were drawn up.

“The city that it took the longest for the federal government’s funds to reach was Natal,” he said. “The moment for planning is past; now concrete spending plans are needed.”

Santos also complained about a lack of information. Of the cities that will host the World Cup games, Natal was ranked the lowest on transparency in investment in 2013 by the Ethos Institute.

“No one has access to the executive projects, it’s all a total mystery,” he said.

According to Santos, Natal was the fruit of an accelerated development process and is one of the cities in the Northeast with the highest number of motor vehicles per capita.

The city has one motor vehicle for every four inhabitants, while demand for public transport is falling. There are more than 260,000 vehicles in the city, and since 2000 the number of cars has risen at a rate of 20,000 a year.

“The city does not have chronic congestion, but traffic has gotten worse quickly in the last 10 years. We had already pointed out the problem in 1998, if the city failed to put in place high-quality public transport systems,” Santos said.

In June 2012, during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), FIFA, the international governing body of association football, announced that it would invest 20 million dollars to make the 2014 World Cup the first with a comprehensive sustainability strategy.

The strategy included “green” stadiums, waste management, community support, reducing and offsetting carbon emissions, renewable energy, climate change and capacity development, according to FIFA and the Local Organising Committee.

FIFA also stated that it would give priority to environmentally-friendly suppliers, and that it would carry out studies to assess the environmental impacts on the areas around the stadiums.

In addition, the construction projects had to obtain environmental permits, as a condition for receiving financing from the country’s state-owned development bank, the BNDES.

Another BNDES requisite was for the stadiums and other installations to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification granted by the U.S. Green Building Council, which is recognised by more than 130 countries.

Eight of the 12 World Cup stadiums followed sustainable construction guidelines, using water and energy saving technologies and recycled materials such as demolition waste.

But what apparently will not be sustainable is the use of the stadium after the World Cup. There is a danger that the Arena Dunas will become a white elephant because football matches in that area do not generally draw more than 6,000 people, OAS business manager Artur Couto acknowledged to IPS.

That means it would take over 3,000 matches just to pay off the construction costs.

But Couto defended the stadium as a multi-use structure. “It was built with the concept of multi-functionality, to be a living cell in the city. There are 40 dates for football games a year, but there are other uses as well, such as concerts and shows.”

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Deforestation in the Andes Triggers Amazon “Tsunami” Wed, 16 Apr 2014 07:35:00 +0000 Mario Osava The Beni river, a tributary of the Madeira river, when it overflowed its banks in 2011 upstream of Cachuela Esperanza, where the Bolivian government is planning the construction of a hydropower dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The Beni river, a tributary of the Madeira river, when it overflowed its banks in 2011 upstream of Cachuela Esperanza, where the Bolivian government is planning the construction of a hydropower dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 16 2014 (IPS)

Deforestation, especially in the Andean highlands of Bolivia and Peru, was the main driver of this year’s disastrous flooding in the Madeira river watershed in Bolivia’s Amazon rainforest and the drainage basin across the border, in Brazil.

That is the assessment of Marc Dourojeanni, professor emeritus at the National Agrarian University in Lima, Peru.

His analysis stands in contrast with the views of environmentalists and authorities in Bolivia, who blame the Jirau and Santo Antônio hydroelectric dams built over the border in Brazil for the unprecedented flooding that has plagued the northern Bolivian department or region of Beni.

“That isn’t logical,” Dourojeanni told IPS. Citing the law of gravity and the topography, he pointed out that in this case Brazil would suffer the effects of what happens in Bolivia rather than the other way around – although he did not deny that the dams may have caused many other problems.

The Madeira river (known as the Madera in Bolivia and Peru, which it also runs across) is the biggest tributary of the Amazon river, receiving in its turn water from four large rivers of over 1,000 km in length.

The Madeira river’s watershed covers more than 900,000 square km – similar to the surface area of Venezuela and nearly twice the size of Spain.

In Bolivia, which contains 80 percent of the watershed, two-thirds of the territory receives water that runs into the Madeira from more than 250 rivers, in the form of a funnel that drains into Brazil.

To that vastness is added the steep gradient. Three of the Madeira’s biggest tributaries – the Beni, the Mamoré and the Madre de Dios, which rises in Peru – emerge in the Andes mountains, at 2,800 to 5,500 metres above sea level, and fall to less than 500 metres below sea level in Bolivia’s forested lowlands.

These slopes “were covered by forest 1,000 years ago, but now they’re bare,” largely because of the fires set to clear land for subsistence agriculture, said Dourojeanni, an agronomist and forest engineer who was head of the Inter-American Development Bank’s environment division in the 1990s.

The result: torrential flows of water that flood Bolivia’s lowlands before heading on to Brazil. A large part of the flatlands are floodplains even during times of normal rainfall.

This year, 60 people died and 68,000 families were displaced by the flooding, in a repeat of similar tragedies caused by the El Niño and La Niña climate phenomena before the Brazilian dams were built.

Deforestation on the slopes of the Andes between 500 metres above sea level and 3,800 metres above sea level – the tree line – is a huge problem in Bolivia and Peru. But it is not reflected in the official statistics, complained Dourojeanni, who is also the founder of the Peruvian Foundation for the Conservation of Nature, Pronaturaleza.

When the water does not run into barriers as it flows downhill, what happens is “a tsunami on land,” which in the first quarter of the year flooded six Bolivian departments and the Brazilian border state of Rondônia.

The homes of more than 5,000 Brazilian families were flooded when the Madeira river overflowed its banks, especially in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia, the state where the two dams are being completed.

BR-364 is a road across the rainforest that has been impassable since February, cutting off the neighbouring state of Acre by land and causing shortages in food and fuel supplies. Outbreaks of diseases like leptospirosis and cholera also claimed lives.

The dams have been blamed, in Brazil as well. The federal courts ordered the companies building the hydropower plants to provide flood victims with support, such as adequate housing, among other measures.

The companies will also have to carry out new studies on the impact of the dams, which are supposedly responsible for making the rivers overflow their banks more than normal.

Although the capacity of the two hydroelectric plants was increased beyond what was initially planned, no new environmental impact studies were carried out.

The companies and the authorities are trying to convince the angry local population that the flooding was not aggravated by the two dams, whose reservoirs were recently filled.

Such intense rainfall “only happens every 500 years,” and with such an extensive watershed it is only natural for the plains to flood, as also occurred in nearly the entire territory of Bolivia, argued Victor Paranhos, president of the Energia Sustentável do Brasil (ESBR), the consortium that is building the Jirau dam, which is closest to the Bolivian border.

The highest water level recorded in Porto Velho since the flow of the Madeira river started being monitored in 1967 was 17.52 metres in 1997, said Francisco de Assis Barbosa, the head of Brazil’s Geological Service in the state of Rondônia.

But a new record was set in late March: 19.68 metres, in a “totally atypical” year, he told IPS.

The counterpoint to the extremely heavy rainfall in the Madeira river basin was the severe drought in other parts of Brazil, which caused an energy crisis and water shortages in São Paulo.

A mass of hot dry air stationed itself over south-central Brazil between December and March, blocking winds that carry moisture from the Amazon jungle, which meant the precipitation was concentrated in Bolivia and Peru.

These events will tend to occur more frequently as a result of global climate change, according to climatologists.

Deforestation affects the climate and exacerbates its effects. Converting a forest into grassland multiplies by a factor of 26.7 the quantity of water that runs into the rivers and increases soil erosion by a factor of 10.8, according to a 1989 study by Philip Fearnside with the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA).

That means half of the rain that falls on the grasslands goes directly into the rivers, aggravating flooding and sedimentation.

The higher the vegetation and the deeper the roots, the less water runs off into the rivers, according to measurements by Fearnside on land with gradients of 20 percent in Ouro Preto D’Oeste, a municipality in Rondônia.

And clearing land for crops is worse than creating grassland because it bares the soil, eliminating even the grass used to feed livestock that retains at least some water, Dourojeanni said.

But grazing livestock compacts the soil and increases runoff, said Fearnside, a U.S.-born professor who has been researching the Amazon rainforest in Brazil since 1974.

In his view, deforestation “has not contributed much to the flooding in Bolivia, for now, because most of the forest is still standing.”

Bolivian hydrologist Jorge Molina at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, a university in La Paz, says the same thing.

But Bolivia is among the 12 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates, says a study by 15 research centres published by the journal Science in November 2013.

The country lost just under 30,000 sq km of forest cover between 2000 and 2012, according to an analysis of satellite maps.

Cattle ranching, one of the major drivers of deforestation, expanded mainly in Beni, which borders Rondônia. Some 290,000 head of cattle died in January and February, according to the local federation of cattle breeders.

The excess water even threatened the efficient operation of the hydropower plants. The Santo Antônio dam was forced to close down temporarily in February.

That explains Brazil’s interest in building additional dams upstream, “more to regulate the flow of the Madeira river than for the energy,” said Dourojeanni.

Besides a projected Brazilian-Bolivian dam on the border, and the Cachuela Esperanza dam in the Beni lowlands, plans include a hydropower plant in Peru, on the remote Inambari river, a tributary of the Madre de Dios river, he said.

But the plans for the Inambari dam and four other hydroelectric plants in Peru, to be built by Brazilian firms that won the concessions, were suspended in 2011 as a result of widespread protests.

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Brazilian Dams Accused of Aggravating Floods in Bolivia Fri, 04 Apr 2014 22:42:11 +0000 Franz Chavez A local resident tries to save some of her belongings during the floods in Bolivia’s Amazon department of Beni. Credit: Courtesy of Diario Opinión

A local resident tries to save some of her belongings during the floods in Bolivia’s Amazon department of Beni. Credit: Courtesy of Diario Opinión

By Franz Chávez
LA PAZ, Apr 4 2014 (IPS)

Unusually heavy rainfall, climate change, deforestation and two dams across the border in Brazil were cited by sources who spoke to IPS as the causes of the heaviest flooding in Bolivia’s Amazon region since records have been kept.

Environmental organisations are discussing the possibility of filing an international legal complaint against the Jirau and Santo Antônio hydroelectric dams built by Brazil, which they blame for the disaster that has already cost 59 lives in Bolivia and material losses of 111 million dollars this year, according to the Fundación Milenio.

Bolivian President Evo Morales himself added his voice on Wednesday Apr. 2 to the choir of those who suspect that the two dams have had to do with the flooding in the Amazon region. “An in-depth investigation is needed to assess whether the Brazilian hydropower plants are playing a role in this,” he said.

The president instructed the foreign ministry to lead the inquiry. “There is a preliminary report that has caused a great deal of concern…and must be verified in a joint effort by the two countries.”

Some 30,000 families living in one-third of Bolivia’s 327 municipalities have experienced unprecedented flooding in the country’s Amazon valleys, lowlands and plains, and the attempt to identify who is responsible has become a diplomatic and political issue.

Environmentalists argue that among those responsible are the dams built in the Brazilian state of Rondônia on the Madeira river, the biggest tributary of the Amazon river, whose watershed is shared by Brazil, Bolivia and Peru.

In Bolivia – where the Madeira (or Madera in Spanish) emerges – some 250 rivers that originate in the Andes highlands and valleys flow into it.

“It was already known that the Jirau and San Antonio [as it is known in Bolivia] dams would turn into a plug stopping up the water of the rivers that are tributaries of the Madera,” independent environmentalist Teresa Flores told IPS.

“Construction of a dam causes water levels to rise over the natural levels and as a consequence slows down the river flow,” the vice president of the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), Patricia Molina, told IPS.

Her assertion was based on the study “The impact of the Madera river dams in Bolivia”, published by FOBOMADE in 2008.

“The Madera dams will cause flooding; the loss of chestnut forests, native flora and fauna, and fish; the appearance and recurrence of diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, dengue; the displacement of people, increased poverty and the disappearance of entire communities,” the study says.

“Considering all of the information provided by environmental activists in Brazil and Bolivia, by late 2013 everything seemed to indicate that the elements for a major environmental disaster were in place,” Environmental Defence League (LIDEMA) researcher Marco Octavio Ribera wrote in an article published Feb. 22.

But Víctor Paranhos, the head of the Energia Sustentável do Brasil (ESBR) sustainable energy consortium, rejected the allegations.

The dams neither cause nor aggravate flooding in Bolivia “because they are run-of-the-river plants, where water flows in and out quickly, the reservoirs are small, and the dams are many kilometres from the border,” he told IPS.

In his view, “what’s going on here is that it has never rained so much” in the Bolivian region in question. The flow in the Madeira river, which in Jirau reached a maximum of “nearly 46,000 cubic metres per second, has now reached 54,350 cubic metres per second,” he added.

Moreover, the flooding has covered a large part of the national territory in Bolivia, not only near the Madeira river dams, he pointed out.

The ESBR holds the concession for the Jirau hydropower plant, which is located 80 km from the Bolivian border. The group is headed by the French-Belgium utility GDF Suez and includes two public enterprises from Brazil as well as Mizha Energia, a subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsui.

At the Jirau and Santo Antônio plants, which are still under construction, the reservoirs have been completed and roughly 50 turbines are being installed in each dam. When they are fully operative, they will have an installed capacity of over 3,500 MW.

Claudio Maretti, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Amazon Initiative, said “there is neither evidence nor conclusive studies proving that the dams built on the Madera river are the cause of the floods in the Bolivian-Brazilian Amazon territories in the first few months of 2014 – at least not yet.”

In a statement, Maretti recommended “integrated conservation planning, monitoring of the impacts of infrastructure projects on the connectivity and flow of the rivers, on aquatic biodiversity, on fishing resources and on the capacity of ecosystems to adapt to the major alterations imposed by human beings.”

The intensity of the rainfall was recognised in a study by the Fundación Milenio which compared last year’s rains in the northern department or region of Beni – the most heavily affected – and the highlands in the south of Bolivia, and concluded that “it has rained twice as much as normal.”

Several alerts were issued, such as on Feb. 23 for communities near the Piraí river, which runs south to north across the department of Santa Cruz, just south of Beni.

At that time, an “extraordinary rise” in the water level of the river, the highest in 31 years, reached 7.5 metres, trapped a dozen people on a tiny island, and forced the urgent evacuation of the local population.

The statistics are included in a report by SEARPI (the Water Channeling and. Regularisation Service of the Piraí River) in the city of Santa Cruz, to which IPS had access.

The plentiful waters of the river run into the Beni plains and contributed to the flooding, along with the heavy rain in the country’s Andes highlands and valleys.

The highest water level in the Piraí river was 16 metres in 1983, according to SEARPI records.

Flores, the environmentalist, acknowledged that there has been “extraordinarily excessive” rainfall, which she attributed to the impact of climate change on the departments of La Paz in the northwest, Cochabamba in the centre, and the municipalities of Rurrenabaque, Reyes and San Borja, in Beni.

Molina, the vice president of FOBOMADE, cited “intensified incursions of flows of water from the tropical south Atlantic towards the south of the Amazon basin,” as an explanation for the heavy rainfall.

She and Flores both mentioned deforestation at the headwaters of the Amazon basin as the third major factor that has aggravated the flooding.

In Cochabamba, former senator Gastón Cornejo is leading a push for an international environmental audit and a lawsuit in a United Nations court, in an attempt to ward off catastrophe in Bolivia’s Amazon region.

“The state of Bolivia has been negligent and has maintained an irresponsible silence,” he told IPS.

Molina proposes taking the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, to denounce the environmental damage reportedly caused by the Brazilian dams.

With reporting by Mario Osava in Rio de Janeiro.

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Port Development Brings Progress to Brazil – At a Price Fri, 21 Mar 2014 09:05:39 +0000 Mario Osava View of the port of Ponta da Madeira, in northeast Brazil, where vessels - including Valemax megaships - dock to load iron ore mined in Carajás. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

View of the port of Ponta da Madeira, in northeast Brazil, where vessels - including Valemax megaships - dock to load iron ore mined in Carajás. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
SÃO LUIS, Brazil, Mar 21 2014 (IPS)

“We are victims of progress,”complained Osmar Santos Coelho, known as Santico. His fishing community has disappeared, displaced to make way for a port complex on São Marcos bay, to the west of São Luis, the capital of the state of Maranhão in Brazil’s northeast.

The Ponta da Madeira maritime terminal, which has been in operation since 1986, has strengthened the influence of its owner, the giant mining company Vale, in São Luis. The terminal currently exports 110 million tonnes a year of iron ore, consolidating a logistical corridor of decisive importance for local economic development.

Ships too big for China

The 23-metre draught in Ponta da Madeira allows Valemax ships to dock in the harbour. They are the largest mineral cargo vessels in the world, with a capacity of 400,000 tonnes, and have been in operation since 2011.

China, the principal customer for Vale’s iron ore, should be the main destination of these megaships, but it banned them from its ports as too large. However, a Chinese shipyard is building 12 of these vessels for Vale. South Korea is building another seven.

Vale’s goal is to have 35 Valemax ships, 16 of which would be chartered. Their size cheapens transport costs and helps the company compete with Australia, a mining power that is closer to the large Asian market. Moreover, the giant ships reduce greenhouse gas emission per tonne of mineral transported by 35 percent, Vale said.

To get its ore to China, Vale, the world’s second largest mining transnational,
uses transfer stations in the Philippines, and will shortly open a distribution centre in Malaysia to transfer goods to smaller ships. Two Brazilan ports and six abroad currently accept Valemax vessels.

Company trains arrive at the port, transporting minerals from Carajás, a huge mining province in the eastern Amazon region that has made Vale the world leader in iron ore production. The port also exports a large proportion of the soya grown in the centre-north of Brazil.

Beside it, a Vale plant converts iron ore to spherical pellets.

These activities create thousands of jobs, especially in Vale’s area of direct influence, Itaqui-Bacanga, an area of 58 poor districts in the southwest of São Luis.

Young people aspire to work there because the pay is good, and Vale’s human resources policies, inherited from its long life as a state company (1942-1997), guarantee job stability. An employee “is only fired if he or she really messes around a lot,” an executive told IPS.

Vale also offers a lot of temporary work for the expansion of the port, and its railroad track, so far one-way, is in the process of being made two-way, with the aim of doubling mining exports from 2018.

Because of these and other local projects, the economy of the surrounding neighbourhoods is booming, said George Pereira, the secretary of the Itaqui-Bacanga Community Association (ACIB). Three plants are planned, for pulp and paper, cement and fertilisers, as well as a coal-fired thermoelectric station, among others.

Some 55 kilometres further south, in the municipality of Bacabeira, the state oil company Petrobras will build the Premium I refinery, which will be the largest in Brazil when it opens in 2018. The project will be put out to tender in April, and at its peak will employ 25,000 workers, the company says.

The employment boom boosts consumption, trade and services, “but this is not the development we want. We have more money in our pockets but no water to drink, because the rivers are polluted,” Pereira said.

Sanitation, drinking water, transport, teachers and doctors are scarce, while there is an excess of violence, drugs and prostitution in the poor districts, where the population is soaring, he said. Close to 200,000 people already live there, and two more housing estates are under construction, he said.

In this context, Vale “does good works, but in isolation, without transformative programmes to develop the entire area,” Pereira criticised. The priorities are education and sanitation, he said.

Ironically, the association that criticises and puts pressure on Vale is its own creature. It arose from the company’s social investment, required by the state National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES) as a condition for financing the iron ore pellet plant.

ACIB is governed by representatives of the five divisions that make up Itaqui-Bacanga and was created 10 years ago to mobilise the local population for an urban clean-up project. Its overheads and its headquarters, a two-story building, are funded by Vale, Pereira said.

Among the company’s numerous social action projects, some are outstanding for their effectiveness, such as extensions to the Itaqui-Bacanga Centre for Professional Education, an educational centre belonging to the National Industrial Apprenticeship Service (SENAI).

This year the centre is providing technical education for 10,000 students, twice the enrolment it had in 2013 and five times that of 2010, thanks to 14 new classrooms and five new laboratories.

Three other centres along the corridor between Carajás and São Luis are supported by similar partnerships between Vale and SENAI, Janaina Pinheiro, Vale’s human resources manager, told IPS.

In 2013, SENAI trained 65,000 students in Maranhão, compared to 10,000 a decade ago, state director Marco Moura told IPS.

Industrialisation in São Luis is concentrated around the ports on São Marcos bay. Near Ponta da Madeira is the state port of Itaqui, which has handled cargo of all kinds since the 1970s, and this year will see the addition of a grain terminal to export soya and maize from the new agricultural frontiers in the centre and north of the country.

Some of Brazil’s new ports were created with the goal of becoming industrial hubs, including Suape and Pecém, in the northeastern states of Pernambuco and Ceará. They were planned as industrial-port complexes and have been boosting the local economies for the past decade.

Both these ports have Petrobras refineries, and Suape has a petrochemical plant and eight shipyards, while Pecém has a steelworks and electricity generating plants. Many companies are locating in the enormous industrial zones on the landward side of the two ports.

The São Luis ports were unconnected to that wave of industrialisation because they belong to the poorest Brazilian region, which is backward and neglected compared to other hubs in the northeast.

The bay’s deep water, suitable for large-draught vessels, its location facing the North Atlantic, and the Carajás railway link, were advantages for the Ponta da Madeira terminal.

Osmar Santos Coelho, Santico, outside the shed where he keeps his nets and fishing gear, on a narrow beach that escaped takeover by the port terminal built by the Vale mining company in São Luis, in Brazil’s Northeast. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Osmar Santos Coelho, Santico, outside the shed where he keeps his nets and fishing gear, on a narrow beach that escaped takeover by the port terminal built by the Vale mining company in São Luis, in Brazil’s Northeast. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

But there have been victims, the 73-year-old Santico reminded IPS, for instance “between 80 and 100” artisanal fisherfolk from Boqueirão, who were evicted from their fishing village on the beach and resettled in different districts.

A few years later, many of them have returned to fish in the São Marcos bay, in spite of this being banned, and they have settled on a small stretch of beach not occupied by the port, he said.

“We had no other trade, and we were hungry,” he said. They eventually built eight rough cabins from poles and palm leaves, some for living in and others just for fishing equipment.

Santico has a house in a nearby district and a cabin on the beach for the gear he uses for his sporadic night-time fishing expeditions. “There are hardly any fish left, and only a few prawns,” after new underwater concrete breakers were built to control tidal currents, he said.

As a result, fisherfolk negotiated with Vale and three years ago the company donated food baskets for 52 fisherfolk, worth between 308 and 725 dollars. “That’s how we survive,” Santico said.

Thousands of other families were evicted to make way for docks and port installations. Itaqui was, in fact, the name of a district that disappeared.

More city districts are now threatened by the industrial zone under construction next to the highway. Vila Maranhão fears extinction, squeezed between the railway and the new industrial hub, and only a few kilometres from a coal-fired thermoelectric plant, a large aluminium industry and stockpiled minerals.

“There is no official word yet, but it’s only a matter of time before we are evicted from here,” predicted Lamartine de Moura, a 71-year-old ACIB director who has lived in Vila Maranhão for 23 years. “If we’re not forced out by expropriation, we will be by the pollution,” she told IPS.

A university study found heavy metals in the local stream, and mineral dust in the air stains the houses and spreads respiratory diseases, she said.

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Brazilian Innovation for Under-financed Mozambican Agriculture Wed, 12 Mar 2014 08:15:41 +0000 Amos Zacarias Erasmo Laldás on his strawberry farm in Naamacha, Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

Erasmo Laldás on his strawberry farm in Naamacha, Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

By Amos Zacarias
MAPUTO, Mar 12 2014 (IPS)

Some of the technological excellence that revolutionised Brazil’s tropical agriculture is reaching small producers in Mozambique. But it is not enough to compensate for the underfinancing of the sector.

Last year, Erasmo Laldás, a 37-year-old farmer who has worked for 15 years in Namaacha, a village 75 kilometres from Mozambique’s capital Maputo, planted 15,000 seedlings of Festival, a new strawberry variety originated in the United States.

Laldás produced seven tonnes of strawberries, employing eight workers. He sold all his produce in Maputo, and in January was the lead vendor in that market, because there was already a shortage of the fruit in South Africa, his main competitor.Mozambique invests very little in the agricultural sector, although it has been increasing its expenditure. In 2013 it devoted 7.6 percent of its budget to agriculture, equivalent to some six billion dollars.

“The fruit is very good quality, it does not require as many chemical products as the South African strawberries and its harvesting season is longer than the native variety that I was growing before,” he told IPS.

Laldás is the first Mozambican producer to benefit from Brazilian and U.S. aid through technical support to the Mozambique Food and Nutrition Security Programme (PSAL).

Created in 2012, the project brings together the Mozambique Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM), the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to expand production and distribution capabioities for fruit and vegetables in this African country.

First of all, studies were needed to adapt seeds to the local climate.

IIAM received more than 90 varieties of tomato, cabbage, lettuce, carrot and pepper, which are being tested at the Umbeluzi Agricultural Station, 25 kilometres from Maputo.

“The results of the trials are encouraging; we identified 17 varieties that have the desired phytosanitary characteristics, and are ready to be distributed to farmers.

“We are waiting for them to be registered and approved under the seal of Mozambique,” IIAM researcher Carvalho Ecole told IPS, regretting that his country has not registered new fruit and vegetable varieties for the past 50 years.

Fruit and vegetable growing is a key sector for generating employment and income among small farmers, as this produce represents 20 percent of family expenditure, according to Ecole.

“For a long time, horticulture was neglected. When talking about food security the government thought only about maize, sorghum and cassava,” Ecole said. Moreover, “our producers still do not have credit or financing,” he complained.

South Africa is the largest supplier of fruit and vegetables for southern Mozambique. IIAM figures show that prior to 2010, nearly all the onions, 65 percent of tomatoes and 57 percent of cabbages consumed in the cities of Maputo and Matola were South African. And those proportions have been maintained.

As a result, prices are high. A kilo of tomatoes costs between 50 and 60 meticals (between 1.60 and 2 dollars) and onions a little less. When the new varieties that have been tested are available for national small farmers, prices will be lower, Ecole said.

Mozambique also imports mangos, bananas, oranges, avocados, strawberries and other fruit from South Africa.

“We need to train and empower local small farmers so that in the years to come they can produce enough to supply the domestic market,” José Bellini, EMBRAPA’s coordinator in Mozambique, told IPS.

Agricultural cooperation is the path chosen by Brazil, ever since the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government (2003-2011), to consolidate its development aid policy, especially in Africa.

Embrapa, a state body made up of 47 research centres located throughout Brazil and several agencies abroad, has worked to transfer part of the knowledge of tropical agriculture accumulated over its 41 years of existence to other countries of the developing South. Its office for Africa was installed in Ghana.

But Brazil’s presence in Mozambique became unequalled with the creation of ProSAVANA, the Triangular Co-operation Programme for Agricultural Development of the Tropical Savannah in Mozambique, supported by the Brazilian and Japanese cooperation agencies (ABC and JICA, respectively), inspired by the experience that made the South American power a granary for the world and the largest exporter of soya.

The goal in the next two decades is to benefit directly 400,000 small and medium farmers and indirectly another 3.6 million, strengthening production and productivity in the northern Nacala Corridor.

Brazil is to build a laboratory for soil and plant analysis in the city of Lichinga. Embrapa is training IIAM researchers and modernising two local research centres.

But ProSAVANA is a controversial programme.

Small farmers and activists are afraid that it will reproduce Brazilian problems, such as the predominance of agribusiness, monoculture, the concentration of land tenure and production by only a few transnational companies, in a country like Mozambique where 80 percent of the population is engaged in family agriculture.

Students at the Agrarian Middle Institute in Inhambane study the development of a variety of lettuce at the Umbeluzi Agricultural Station in Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

Students at the Agrarian Middle Institute in Inhambane study the development of a variety of lettuce at the Umbeluzi Agricultural Station in Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

Supporting the PSAL makes sense in a very different way. It focuses on vegetable growing, and is clearly aimed at small producers and improving local nutrition. But it suffers from limitations of scale and resources.

“We cannot improve our production system without investment. We have taken a giant step, there is more research and technology transfer, but large investments are needed as well,” said Ecole.

Mozambique invests very little in the agricultural sector, although it has been increasing its expenditure. In 2013 it devoted 7.6 percent of its budget to agriculture, equivalent to some six billion dollars.

Thirty percent of the country’s population are hungry, according to 2012 figures from the Technical Secretariat for Food and Nutrition Security. And nearly 80,000 children under the age of five die every year from malnutrition, according to Save the Children, an NGO.

There is no justification for these figures in Mozambique, which has a favourable climate and plentiful labour for large-scale agricultural production, Ecole said.

Namaacha illustrates the contradiction. It is the only district in the country that produces strawberries. It was able to supply the entire Maputo market, but many producers were bankrupted by lack of credit, said Cecília Ruth Bila, the head of the fruits section in IIAM.

“The small farmers find it difficult to get financing, and our banks do not help much, so producers give up,” she complained.

Nearly 150 strawberry farmers in Namaacha gave up growing them in the last five years because they lacked access to credit, according to information from the section.

Laldás is one of the few to continue. Perhaps that is why his dreams are so ambitious. This year he has asked for 150,000 seedlings to expand his growing area to three hectares, and meanwhile he is seeking financing to put in electricity, three greenhouses, an irrigation system and a small improvement industry.

“It will cost me a total of nearly six million meticals [nearly 200,000 dollars],” he said with optimism.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Rich Railroad Brings Few Opportunities in Brazil Fri, 28 Feb 2014 01:03:22 +0000 Mario Osava Informal vendors sell food and drinks to passengers on the Carajás Railroad at Alto Alegre do Pindaré, in the northwest of the Brazilian state of Maranhão. This source of income will disappear when the trains are modernised and their windows sealed shut. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Informal vendors sell food and drinks to passengers on the Carajás Railroad at Alto Alegre do Pindaré, in the northwest of the Brazilian state of Maranhão. This source of income will disappear when the trains are modernised and their windows sealed shut. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava

The Carajás railroad, regarded as the most efficient in Brazil, runs a loss-making passenger service for the benefit of the population. But this does little to make amends for its original sin: it was created to export minerals and crosses an area of chronic poverty.

Three decades after it was built, the Carajás corridor, or area of influence, of the railway that transports one-third of the iron ore exported by Brazil remains a supplier of cheap labour for more prosperous regions and large projects in the Amazon, IPS found in a visit to the region.“The Vale train has brought me only woe and loss." -- Evangelista da Silva

Auzilandia, a village of 12,000 people and humble dwellings either side of the tracks, “is empty” at the end of every year, according to Leide Diniz. Her husband has gone, “for the second time,” over 3,000 kilometres south to the state of Santa Catarina, a three-day bus journey.

He left their three children with her in November to work in a restaurant during the tourist season in the southern hemisphere summer. “He earns some money and comes back,” said his wife, who accepts the situation because “there are no jobs here.”

For the past few years most of the unemployed workers in Alto Alegre do Pindaré, a municipality of 31,000 people, have migrated to Santa Catarina for seasonal work. Auzilandia is part of this municipality in the heartland of Maranhão, a transition state between the semi-arid northeast of Brazil and the Amazon rainforest.

The main street of Auzilandia, a village of 12,000 people in the municipality of Alto Alegre do Pindaré. Many adults here migrate 3,000 kilometres to the south in the southern hemisphere summer for work, because of the lack of opportunities in this village bisected by the Carajás Railroad. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The main street of Auzilandia, a village of 12,000 people in the municipality of Alto Alegre do Pindaré. Many adults here migrate 3,000 kilometres to the south in the southern hemisphere summer for work, because of the lack of opportunities in this village bisected by the Carajás Railroad. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Two-thirds of the 892 kilometres of the Carajás Railroad go through Maranhão, but this state continues to send workers to many other regions of the country, in general for temporary or precarious work, like artisanal gold mining in Amazonia or harvesting sugarcane.

It is also the main source of the victims of modern slavery, especially in stock raising and charcoal making. Its Human Development Index is next to last among the 27 Brazilian states and its per capita income is the lowest.

The Carajás Railroad and the transnational Brazilian mining giant Vale, that has the concession, will have a new opportunity to aid local development. Its tracks, so far one-way,  are in the process of being made two-way, and mining extraction in the Serra dos Carajás (Carajás mountains) in the Amazonian state of Pará is about to be doubled up.

From 2018, some 230 million tonnes a year of the highest grade iron ore on the world market will be extracted.

The railway widening will extend to the deep water port of Ponta da Madeira in São Luis, the capital of Maranhão, which exports the production of  Carajás, including manganese, copper and other minerals that make Vale the second largest minerals exporter in the world.

An investment of 19.5 billion dollars is required, most of it in logistics.

Accidents, in spite of safety measures

His grandparents were working in the field, his mother was hand-pounding rice in a mortar and his older brother was cutting his hair. No one noticed when the 15-month-old baby crawled across the patio, through the gate and reached the railway a few metres away.

This is how Leidiane de Oliveira Conceição relates the tragic story of how she lost her son.

“The Vale train has brought me only woe and loss. The worst thing was when it killed my grandson, but once it also ran over 14 bred (pregnant) cows of mine,” complained grandfather Evangelista da Silva, who is claiming an indemnity for land taken over by the railway.

Vale’s trains are regarded as the safest in Brazil.

Safety features include electronic barriers, viaducts, information campaigns and 24-hour patrols that remove “more than 80 at-risk people a month,” like those intoxicated with drink or visually impaired, according to Elmer Vinhote, a supervisor at the Carajás Railroad operational control centre.

Accidents and crashes have fallen from 20 in 2009 to “three or four” a year now, he said.

But accidents and legal disputes seem inevitable. Mario Farias’ mother was killed by a train in 1996 and they have still not received the indemnity. In Auzilandia, an inebriated old man was saved by the patrol a few months ago, according to local people.

Dozens of families complain of cracks in their houses, caused by the construction of a viaduct over the rails, and are claiming new houses further away, or indemnities.

At its peak, railroad construction will employ 8,645 workers, Vale said. There will be 1,438 permanent jobs when the dual-track railway comes into operation and the priority will be to hire local people, the company promised.

A drop in the bucket towards development in such a vast area of influence. The most significant aid will come from the social investments of this company, one of the most profitable in Brazil.

A new mining bill, to be approved this year, will compel a small proportion of Vale’s income to be spent for the benefit of municipalities that are indirectly impacted by its activities.

To ensure these and other resources and to make better use of them, the 23 municipalities on the path of the railroad in Maranhão have joined forces to coordinate their actions and their relations with Vale.

The company assessed local economic interests and designed “projects for each micro-region along the railroad,” according to Zenaldo Oliveira, Vale’s director of logistics operations. In one community it may fund a cassava flour mill, in another fruit growing and juice production, he said.

Vale, founded by the state in 1942 and privatised in 1997, only supports education, health and income generation initiatives, he said, because these have been identified as the major problems hindering local development.

At present, with a single track for both directions, there are 12 freight trains daily from Carajás to São Luis. The trains are said to be the longest in the world, with 330 railcars, four locomotives, and each carrying more than 30,000 tonnes of minerals, totalling over 100 million tonnes a year.

On the return journey they carry fuel, fertiliser and other products consumed in the interior.

Passenger trains operating at subsidised fares, because “the local population is unable to afford the real cost,” provide the “social benefit” of cheap, permanent transport in a region where the rains often make roads impassable, Oliveira said.

At 15 stops, especially at Alto Alegre do Pindaré, vendors of cold drinks and food, most of them women, swarm to the train offering their wares to the railroad’s 360,000 passengers a year through the open windows.

This precarious income may disappear with the new project, as the cars will be air conditioned and the windows will be closed. “We will seek solutions” before the changeover, perhaps organising vendor cooperatives, Vale’s Oliveira said.

A workers and vendors cooperative has existed in Alto Alegre for some time, founded with support from Vale. Ten years ago it used to sell food to the railroad’s canteen, but “only for a short time,” according to its 58-year-old coordinator, Alice Cunegundes, a mother of three.

Afterwards the cooperative, which had as many as 93 members, supplied up to 3,000 meals a day to the mayor’s office, until the present mayor, elected in 2012, cancelled the arrangement, knocking the stuffing out of the initiative, she complained.

Supporting enterprise, improving schools and training thousands of workers are some of the social and environmental actions of Vale and its Foundation.

But “they are one-off projects that do not promote effective development in the territory,” said George Pereira, the executive secretary of the Itaquí-Bacanga Community Association, another “product of Vale’s social investments,” which serves 58 neighbourhoods around Ponta da Madeira.

Moreover, they are inadequate compensation for the damages suffered by the population of the Carajás corridor, according to Justiça Nos Trilhos (Justice on the Tracks), a campaign made up of social and religious movements to defend the rights of the people affected by the railroad.

In 2012, its denunciations and those of Articulaçao Internacional dos Atingidos pela Vale (International Network of People Affected by Vale) led to the company being selected for The Public Eye award, created by international organisations like Greenpeace to single out the worst corporate offenders against human rights and the environment.

Fatal accidents, pollution with mineral dust and cracks in houses close to the railway line are some of the impacts on local people.

The railroad must answer for its own sins as well as those of its twin partner, iron mining. It is also part of the Programa Grande Carajás (Grand Carajás Programme), a group of mining, steel, aluminium, pulp and paper, ranching and hydropower companies with which the government intended to develop the eastern Amazon region in the 1980s.

The programme created accelerated deforestation, lethal pollution around iron industry centres, slave labour and other forms of violence, while there was little progress in human development, acording to the statistics.

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Iron Hell in Brazil’s Amazon Region Mon, 10 Feb 2014 15:08:57 +0000 Mario Osava Florencio de Souza Bezerra points with his foot to a mound of dangerously inflammable charcoal dust on a roadside in Piquiá de Baixo. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Florencio de Souza Bezerra points with his foot to a mound of dangerously inflammable charcoal dust on a roadside in Piquiá de Baixo. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
PIQUIÁ DE BAIXO, Brazil, Feb 10 2014 (IPS)

“My nephew was eight years old when he stepped in the ‘munha’ [charcoal dust] and burned his legs up to the knees,” said Angelita Alves de Oliveira from a corner of Brazil’s Amazonia that has become a deadly hazard for local people.

Treatment in faraway hospitals did not save the boy’s life, because “his blood had become toxic, the doctor said,” said Oliveira, 61, who has been working as a teacher for the last 30 years. “My sister was never the same after she lost her youngest child.”

Oliveira’s own husband suffered from similar burns, as the scars on his legs show."An examination a year ago showed shadows on my lungs, and the doctor accused me of being a long-time smoker, but I have never touched a cigarette.” -- Angelita Alves de Oliveira

“Munha” is pulverised charcoal waste left over from the production of pig-iron, an intermediate in steel production. It has made the village of Piquiá de Baixo, in the Brazil’s eastern Amazon region, a tragic case study in industrial pollution.

Piquiá is a rural village in Açailandia municipality in the state of Maranhão, which grew out of workers’ camps set up in 1958 to build the Belém-Brasilia highway, a major axis of development and integration in the centre-north of Brazil, which was responsible for several environmental and social disasters.

The railway that opened in 1985 to transport iron ore from the huge mining province of Carajás sealed the fate of Açailandia as a logistics crossroads and steel industry hub. Piquiá de Baizo was hemmed in by five pig-iron plants, the railway and large mining storehouses.

Making charcoal to feed the steel furnaces was added to traditional cattle ranching, and transformed Açailandia into a focal point for deforestation and slave labour.

These blights have receded in the face of state persecution and various pressures. But pollution in Piquiá has worsened, according to the testimonies of people interviewed by IPS.

Pulverised charcoal waste is still a menace. Dryness makes it inflammable at the lightest touch. This is what cost Oliveira’s nephew his life in 1993, when few people knew how lethal the black dust was.

A family smiles for the camera from the shade of a tree. The highway separates them from the pig-iron plants that are making like impossible in their neighbourhood. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A family smiles for the camera from the shade of a tree. The highway separates them from the pig-iron plants that are making like impossible in their neighbourhood. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

People took heed and accidents have become less frequent, but they have not been eradicated. A child of seven was burned to the waist in 1999 and died three weeks later.

“I have seen cows incinerated,” said Florencio de Souza Bezerra, who used to be a small-scale farmer and is now an active member of the Piquiá Residents Community Association. He has lived in Piquiá for 10 years with his nine children and two grandchildren, in a big wooden house with a large yard.

Mounds of munha can be seen in the streets where the steel plant trucks pass, and in at least one unroofed materials storehouse that IPS was able to enter unrestricted.

But the most frequent complaint of local people is the air pollution. “Just over a year ago a girl died from iron dust in her lungs and cancer, after 15 days in intensive care,” said Bezerra.

In the village square, he points out the houses where residents have died of respiratory illnesses.

Oliveira said “an examination a year ago showed shadows on my lungs, and the doctor accused me of being a long-time smoker, but I have never touched a cigarette.” She wants to “give life and hope” to her grandchildren, who live here “exposed to pollution 24 hours a day.”

“I have lived a long time, but my grandchildren haven’t,” said Oliveira. Her house is next to the Gusa Nordeste plant, one of the five industrial units that produce pig-iron.

The situation worsened “two years ago,” she said, when the company started producing cement. Now it spreads clouds of black dust that cover everything in seconds and, some mornings, make her house invisible from the main road, only 30 metres away.

For the company this has spelled progress, as they can use blast furnace slag as an input for cement production, avoiding bulky waste and providing the local construction market with a product that formerly had to be hauled in from a long way away.

Gusa Nordeste proclaims that it is being responsible for the environment because it uses munha as a fuel, saving granulated charcoal, and utilises gas derived from pig-iron production to generate all its electrical energy needs.

But the truth, recognised by the justice system, several authorities and the industry itself, is that air, water and soil pollution have made it impossible for the people of Piquiá de Baixo to continue to live where they have been for over four decades.

A proposal to resettle the 312 families living in Piquiá de Baixo on 38 hectares of land six kilometres from its present location has been approved by the justice system and the municipal council.

In December, justice authorities ordered the expropriation of the land and valued it at the equivalent of 450,000 dollars, but the owner is demanding four times that sum, so the residents of Piquiá are still waiting.

The community has come up with its own urban project, including the designs for the houses, the school, the square, shops and churches, said Antonio Soffientini, a member of Justice on the Rails, a network of dozens of organisations supporting those affected by the Carajás mining region.

Eroded street and dilapidated houses in Piquiá de Baixo. Residents have long waited for relocation on land expropriated by the justice system. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Eroded street and dilapidated houses in Piquiá de Baixo. Residents have long waited for relocation on land expropriated by the justice system. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

In the mountain range of Serra dos Carajás, the giant mining company Vale extracts close to 110 million tonnes of iron ore a year. The ore is transported by rail 892 kilometres to the port of Ponta da Madeira in São Luis, the capital of Maranhão, to be exported.

A small proportion of the iron ore remains in Açailandia. As the supplier to the local pig-iron industry, Vale has direct responsibility for the pollution, according to Justice on the Rails.

“Vale could stop supplying ore until the industry instals filters and puts an end to the dreadful situation in Piquiá,” said Soffientini, an Italian member of the Catholic order of Comboni missionaries.

That would create an unemployment crisis in Açailandia, said Zenaldo Oliveira, Vale’s global director of logistics operations.

This steelmaking hub has already experienced a decline in activity since 2008. The 6,000 jobs it provided then have fallen to 3,500 today, according to Jarles Adelino, the president of the Açailandia metalworkers union.

The union leader complained of the high price charged by Vale for its iron ore, which amounts to half the cost of pig-iron production.

However, the declining activity is not apparent in the city of Açailandia, with its hotels filled to capacity and other signs of prosperity. Several plants in the surrounding area offer temporary work, said Adelino, and each position at a pig-iron plant generates 10 indirect jobs.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Development Follows Devastation from Brazilian Dam Mon, 13 Jan 2014 23:08:47 +0000 Mario Osava A farmer proudly displays his watermelon crop in the municipality of Gloria, in Bahía state, where he was resettled after the family’s land was submerged by the Itaparica dam in Northeast Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A farmer proudly displays his watermelon crop in the municipality of Gloria, in Bahía state, where he was resettled after the family’s land was submerged by the Itaparica dam in Northeast Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
PETROLANDIA, Brazil , Jan 13 2014 (IPS)

Valdenor de Melo has been waiting for 27 years for the land and cash compensation he is due because his old farm was left underwater when the Itaparica hydroelectric dam was built on the São Francisco river in Brazil’s semiarid Northeast.

“I’ll get them, I’m confident,” he told IPS, although he is worried it will be after he retires as a farmer. But the 60-year-old at least has a solid brick house, where he lives with part of his family in a purpose-built farming village where all of the homes look alike.

The Melo family is one of the 10,500 families displaced in 1988, according to official data, by the reservoir of the Itaparica dam, which generates 1,480 MW of electricity.

But the real number of people forced off their land by the dam is nearly double that – close to 80,000 people, Russell Parry Scott, an anthropologist from the U.S., wrote in his book “Negociações e resistências persistentes”, published in Portuguese. The book is based on studies carried out at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Northeast Brazil, where he is a professor.

Melo’s undying hope is based on the process that began with the construction of the dam and the 828-sq-km reservoir, which submerged four towns as well as riverbank fields along a 150-km stretch of the border between the states of Bahía and Pernambuco.

Unlike other hydropower plants in Brazil, the Itaparica dam triggered a successful, organised movement by the rural families who were displaced.

Rural workers associations from 13 municipalities came together in the Pólo Sindical dos Trabalhadores Rurais do Submédio São Francisco – the rural workers union of the lower-middle São Francisco river – and began to hold protests when construction began, in 1979.

The demonstrations drew up to 5,000 protesters, who blocked roads and occupied towns set to be flooded, as well as the offices of the construction company and the construction sites, in some cases for a number of days, defying harsh police crackdowns.

After a seven-year battle, the state-run São Francisco Hydroelectric Company, which owns 15 plants and supplies the Northeast with electricity, gave in and signed the 1986 Agreement to resettle rural families, pay them compensation for the property they lost, and provide them with monthly maintenance subsidies pending the first harvest on their new land.

Under the agreement, a total of 6,187 rural families were to be resettled in new homes, with up to six hectares of irrigated land and a more extensive area of dryland for each family.

The amount of land varied according to the number of family members who could work it, with women counting for 60 percent of the value assigned to men.

The Pólo Sindical took part in drafting the resettlement plan and kept up the pressure on the company and the government, as the programme suffered delays.

The end of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship and the return to democracy empowered social movements and favoured the Pólo Sindical’s triumph.

The more resistance the displaced small farmers faced, the more their tenacity grew. They sought to prevent a repeat of the abuses of earlier years, when thousands of Brazilians were forced off their land and out of their towns and only given meagre cash compensation, or none at all if they did not have legal title to their land, when other hydroelectric dams were built on the São Francisco river.

The rural families who accepted the resettlement agreement – 85 percent of those who were displaced, according to Scott – were relocated to 126 new “agrovilas” or farming villages scattered throughout several municipalities, with an average of about 50 families each.

“We managed to get part of the families resettled, but many left – they didn’t believe in our movement, they preferred to take the compensation payment,” and they moved to the impoverished outskirts of Brazil’s larger cities, the general coordinator of the Pólo Sindical, Adimilson Nunis, told IPS.

The agrovilas were built with the necessary infrastructure in sanitation, electricity, water, schools, administrative and health posts, he said. And the villages were placed around 12 areas of land that were to be irrigated, where each family had their most productive land.

But the irrigation equipment that would enable the families to start producing on the land did not start arriving until 1993, four years after cultivation was set to begin, and only in three of the 12 areas. Irrigated production began on six other areas within the following five years.

But the Melo family had the bad luck of being resettled in the Proyeto Jurante in the municipality of Gloria – one of the three agrovilas still under construction.

Most of the residents gave up and moved away. “In agrovila 5 only one family stayed, and only three stayed in agrovila 9,” waiting for the irrigation equipment, said Maria de Fátima Melo, Valdenor’s daughter, who hopes to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a farmer, once the irrigation project is set up.

But she got a municipal job as a nurse “just in case,” she told IPS.

The nine projects that have been operating since the 1990s have brought higher incomes and technological advances to 4,910 families, according to the São Francisco and Parnaíba valley development company, CODEVASF, the government agency in charge of managing the irrigation systems and providing technical assistance.

Gloria is now a watermelon-producing area. The resettlement project contributed to that when irrigation equipment was received in 1993 by 123 families relocated to three agrovilas, who also run an experimental centre, Dorgival Araujo Melo, a farmer and town councillor for the Green Party, told IPS.

“Irrigation is the solution for the Northeast, but with water-saving technologies” to adapt to the region’s semiarid climate, he argued.

He is proud of having managed, in his irrigation area, to replace wasteful sprinkler systems with drip irrigation tubing.

“Life improved with the new house, the nearby school, and the irrigated land,” said Ana de Souza Xavier. But, she added, she liked it better when the neighbours didn’t live so close together, and when she had a large yard “for raising goats and chickens and growing vegetables.”

Her husband Oswaldo Xavier, meanwhile, said he did not like the isolation of rural life.

The couple, whose three grown children are independent and have received higher education, were resettled in another agrovila near Petrolandia, a city built to replace another that was flooded when the reservoir was filled.

With three hectares of irrigated land and 22 hectares of dryland that they have been farming for the past 20 years, the family has prospered growing coconuts.

“Before this we suffered from the failure of crops of beans and watermelons,” her husband told IPS.

The experience in Itaparica, where nearly 20,000 hectares of irrigated land are worked by family farmers, represents an alternative form of agricultural development, different from the model of large-scale production of crops for both domestic consumption and export, requiring large investments and technologies that are unaffordable for small farmers.

But it is unlikely that Itaparica will inspire similar solutions for conflicts generated by other megaprojects, such as the controversial Belo Monte dam in the Amazon rainforest.

As of 2010, the costs of the rural resettlement programme were equivalent to 85 percent of the total investment in the construction of the hydroelectric plant, and in 2014 will be equivalent to 100 percent, according to Brazil’s court of audit, which oversees the state’s financial administration.

Settling each family from the Itaparica dam cost four times more than in other government-backed irrigation projects, it reported.

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Farmers in Mozambique Fear Brazilian-Style Agriculture Sat, 28 Dec 2013 12:08:57 +0000 Amos Zacarias Population density is high in rural Mozambique. Credit: Courtesy of União Nacional de Camponeses

Population density is high in rural Mozambique. Credit: Courtesy of União Nacional de Camponeses

By Amos Zacarias
NAMPULA, Mozambique , Dec 28 2013 (IPS)

Rodolfo Razão, an elderly small farmer in Mozambique, obtained an official land usage certificate for his 10 hectares in 2010, but he has only been able to use seven. The rest was occupied by a South African company that grows soy, maize and beans on some 10,000 hectares in the northeast of the country.

He got nowhere filing a complaint with the authorities in the district of Monapo, where he lives, in the province of Nampula. And at the age of 78, he can’t wait much longer.

Brígida Mohamad, a 50-year-old widow, is worried about one of her seven children, whose land was also invaded by a company.

“My son has nowhere to grow his crops; our ‘machambas’ [farms] aren’t for sale,” she complained when she met with IPS in Nacololo, the village in Monapo where she has lived her whole life.

These are two cases that help explain the fear among small farmers regarding the Programme of Triangular Cooperation for Agricultural Development of the Tropical Savannahs of Mozambique (ProSavana), which is backed by the cooperation agencies of Brazil (ABC) and Japan (JICA).

Inspired by the technology for tropical agriculture developed in Brazil, ProSavana is aimed at increasing production in the Nacala Corridor, a 14.5-million-hectare area in central and northern Mozambique that has agricultural potential similar to the Cerrado region – Brazil’s savannah.Of the 4.5 million inhabitants of the Corridor, 80 percent live in rural areas, representing much higher population density than in Brazil and other countries, where the countryside has lost much of its population as agriculture has modernised.

Of the 4.5 million inhabitants of the Corridor, 80 percent live in rural areas, representing much higher population density than in Brazil and other countries, where the countryside has lost much of its population as agriculture has modernised.

But in certain parts of the Corridor, it is possible to go two kilometres without seeing a house, as the families who depend on subsistence farming are spread out and isolated, on farms averaging 1.5 hectares in size.

Cassava is the basis of the local diet. The small farmers also grow maize, pumpkins, sunflowers and sweet potatoes for their own consumption, as well as cash crops: cotton, tobacco and cashew nuts.

The prospect of turning the Corridor into the country’s breadbasket, where agricultural exports are facilitated by the Nacala port on the Indian Ocean, is expected to intensify conflicts over land by attracting companies focused on large-scale, high-yield production on immense estates that displace traditional farming populations.

The arrival of these big investors is a terrible thing, Mohamad said. She is opposed not only to the changes directly brought about by ProSavana, but to others that could be accelerated due to the programme’s influence.

The coordinator of ProSavana, Calisto Bias, told IPS that peasant farmers will not lose their land. He added that the main objective of the programme is to support farmers living in the Corridor and help improve their production techniques.

But Sheila Rafi, natural resources officer with Livaningo, a Mozambican environmental organisation, said the way of life of local communities will be disrupted because the investors will bring in new employer-employee relations as local people produce crops for the companies, and monoculture will undermine the tradition of “producing a little of everything for their own diet.”

Generating jobs by means of investment and value chains is one of ProSavana’s stated missions. Another is modernising and diversifying agriculture with a view to boosting productivity and output, according to the website created by the Agriculture Ministry.

But the greatest fear, the biggest threat, is land-grabbing. Many are trying to protect their land by obtaining the “land usage right” based on customary occupancy (known as DUAT). But the certificate does not actually guarantee a thing, local farmers told IPS.

Under the laws of this southeast African nation, all land belongs to the state and cannot be sold or mortgaged. Farmers can apply to the government for a DUAT for up to 50 years.

Some 250 small farmers in Nacololo gathered Dec. 11 outside the home of the local chief to demand explanations about the alleged grabbing of nearly 600 hectares of land by Suni, a South African company.

The district of Malema, 230 km from the city of Nampula, is also experiencing turbulent times. Major agribusiness companies like Japan’s Nitori Holding Company operate in that area. Nitori was granted a concession to grow cotton on 20,000 hectares of land, and the people who live there will be resettled elsewhere.

Another of the companies is Agromoz (Agribusiness de Moçambique SA), a joint venture between Brazil, Mozambique and Portugal, which is producing soy on 10,000 hectares.

The lack of information from the government has exacerbated worries about what is going to happen. “We only heard from the media and civil society organisations that there’s a programme called ProSavana; the government hasn’t told us anything yet,” said Razão.

Costa Estevão, president of the Nampula Provincial Nucleus of Small-Scale Farmers, said “We aren’t opposed to development, but we want policies that benefit small farmers and we want them to explain to us what ProSavana is.”

The triangular agreement, which was reached in 2011 and combines Japan’s import market with Brazil’s know-how and Mozambique’s land, has already proved fertile ground for controversy.

Social organisations from the three countries have mobilised against ProSavana, rejecting it or demanding that it be reformulated.

Brazil wants “to export a model that is in conflict,” said Fátima Mello, director of international relations for the Brazilian organisation FASE and an active participant in the People’s Triangular Conference on ProSavana, held in Maputo in August.

Millions of landless peasants, a major rural exodus, fierce land disputes, deforestation and unprecedented use of pesticides and herbicides have been the result of the model that has prioritised agribusiness, monoculture for export and large corporations, say activists who defend family farming as one of the keys to food security.

An important component of that model is the Japan-Brazil Cooperation Programme for Development of the Cerrado, which got underway in 1978 in central Brazil and is now serving as an inspiration for ProSavana.

The technology that will be transferred to farmers in the Nacala Corridor comes from Brazil.

The Brazilian governmental agricultural research agency, Embrapa, is training extension workers and staff at Mozambique’s Institute for Agricultural Research (IIAM), in ProSavana’s first project, which will run from 2011 to 2016.

Brazilian participation is also decisive in the rest of the components of the programme: the master plan assessing the rural areas and crops with good potential in the Corridor, and the project for extension and models.

“The breadth and grandeur of the ProSavana Programme contrast with the failure of the law and the total absence of a deep, broad, transparent and democratic public debate,” says an open letter signed by 23 Mozambican social organisations and movements and 43 international organisations.

The letter, addressed to the leaders of Brazil, Japan and Mozambique and signed May 23 in Maputo, also called for the environmental impact assessment required by law.

The signatories demanded the immediate suspension of the programme, an official dialogue with all affected segments of society, a priority on family farming and agroecology, and a policy based on food sovereignty.

They also said that all of the resources allocated to ProSavana should be “reallocated to efforts to define and implement a National Plan for the Support of Sustainable Family Farming.”

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Caring for Water Is a Must for Brazil’s Energy Industry Fri, 20 Dec 2013 08:23:28 +0000 Mario Osava The Paraná river, reduced in size by the concrete behemoth of the binational Itaipú dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The Paraná river, reduced in size by the concrete behemoth of the binational Itaipú dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
FOZ DE IGUAÇU, Brazil , Dec 20 2013 (IPS)

As they build huge hydropower dams, the Brazilian government and companies have run into resistance from environmentalists, indigenous groups and social movements. But the binational Itaipú plant is an exception, where cooperation is the name of the game.

Involved in a total of 65 environmental, social and productive activities, the Cultivando Agua Boa (Cultivating Good Water – CAB) programme is led and supported by activists. Sectors of the government are considering using it as a model to be replicated in other major infrastructure projects, to mitigate impacts and conflicts.

Compared to what is happening in the rest of the hydroelectric dam projects, “it’s a stride forward,” said Robson Formica, head of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in the southern state of Paraná, where the giant Itaipú hydropower complex is located on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.

Itaipú Binacional, the company that operates the hydroelectric plant, decided to guarantee efficient long-term electricity generation by caring for the Paraná river basin to ensure both the quantity and quality of the water. That has paved the way for cooperation with environmentalists.

More than 80 percent of Brazil’s electricity comes from its rivers, which means the country’s energy security depends on rainfall and on the best possible use of water.

Itaipú’s CAB programme was launched in 2003, two decades after thousands of rural and indigenous families were displaced in order to flood their land and fill the 1,350-sq-km reservoir. The dam is the world’s largest hydroelectric power producer.

Formica said CAB’s activities are “important, but limited and isolated.”

“They fail to establish a policy for local development, or for structural changes in the area in question,” added the head of MAB, which estimates that hydroelectric dams have displaced around one million people in Brazil.

The demand that the company take over functions that normally fall to the state has gained force as mega-dams and other infrastructure projects that drastically modify extensive areas of rainforest and other habitats mushroom around the country.

In addition, environmental laws are requiring compensation for damage caused.

In the case of Itaipú, that requirement is particularly justified. It is an unusual company, run by two different national governments, and it brought in revenue of 3.8 billion dollars in 2012.

The land and rivers where the complex operates along the border between Brazil and Paraguay contain the enormous hydroelectric plant, the reservoir, 104,000 hectares of land that is under environmental conservation, the University of Latin American Integration and the Itaipú Technological Park.

The CAB programme is active in 29 municipalities in Brazil covering a total surface area of 8,339 sq km, with one million inhabitants, along a 170-km stretch of the Paraná river and reservoir.

The programme’s 65 activities include assistance to indigenous communities, aquaculture, medicinal plants, biogas and environmental education – a concerted effort connected by the central aim of taking care of the water.

For example, CAB’s sustainable rural development activities revolve around organic agriculture as the top priority, aimed at reducing the pesticides polluting the reservoir.

“We started out with 186 families; today there are 1,180 families participating, and there are 2,000 organic gardens,” said Nelton Friedrich, Itaipú director of coordination and the environment.

The Itaipú Platform of Renewable Energies was also created, to protect the rivers from animal manure. The manure is converted into biogas, which generates electricity, thus creating another source of income for local farmers while curbing pollution of the water.

Family farming is the main livelihood around the reservoir, where there are millions of pigs, barnyard fowl and cattle on 26,000 smallholdings. If allowed to run into the water, the manure would cause excessive build-up of nutrients and the proliferation of aquatic weeds, which reduce the oxygen in the water.

This process is called eutrophication, explained Cícero Bley, Itaipú’s superintendent of renewable energies. “Pollution by organic waste is more common than pollution by toxic agrochemicals,” and in some cases makes constant cleaning of reservoirs necessary, he said.

It takes nearly 30 days to renew the water in the Itaipú reservoir, compared to much shorter time-frames in other dams.

On the Madeira river in the northern Amazon jungle state of Rondônia, where the Santo Antonio and Jirau hydroelectric dams just began to operate, it takes just two or three days to renew the water in the reservoirs, said Domingo Fernandez, Itaipú’s chief researcher on fish.

Clean-up and reforestation are thus clearly necessary along the banks of the reservoir to keep the water healthy and productive. The CAB programme planted more than 24 million trees around the Itaipú reservoir.

The initiatives follow a methodology that is also key, expanding the activities to the entire watershed, “because nature organises itself by watershed,” Friedrich said.

The model followed is based on the concept of shared responsibility, involving all local actors, from public and private companies to civil society and universities, with community participation – a kind of “direct democracy,” he explained.

To that end, management committees were created in the 29 municipalities, made up of an average of 57 representatives of different sectors, after numerous meetings were held for awareness-raising and debate on problems that have arisen.

The so-called water pacts, which are community commitments signed in ceremonies, drive the design and collective implementation of the plans and projects.

These initiatives point out a good path to follow, but are far from filling Itaipú’s social debt, said Aluizio Palmar, founder of the Centre for Human Rights and Popular Memory and a former secretary of the environment and communication in Foz de Iguaçú, the Brazilian municipality where the binational dam operates.

Construction of the hydropower plant between 1975 and 1983 displaced rural families, many of whom did not hold legal title to their land, which they needed to obtain compensation. The families joined the ranks of the people living in the favelas or slums, and the rates of violence in Foz de Iguaçú shot up, Palmar pointed out.

The monetary rewards, such as royalties, mainly benefited the city governments, which used the money to build shiny new government buildings and tourist attractions, while dedicating very little to cover the needs of the local population, Palmar complained.

Nevertheless, the situation at Itaipú stands in contrast with the situation in other parts of the country, especially on the São Francisco river, where there is a national clamour for the river to be cleaned up and revitalised, and where there is only an incipient programme coordinated by the environment ministry.

Five large hydroelectric dams with a total combined output of 10,827 MW – equivalent to 77 percent of Itaipú’s production – harness the increasingly scarce water in Brazil’s semiarid Northeast.

The main portion of the river crosses the impoverished region, and besides the frequent droughts, the São Francisco suffers from sedimentation and pollution caused by human activities, such as deforestation along the riverbank, the dumping of untreated sewage, and agribusiness projects irrigated with water from the river.

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Oil Palm Changes Rural Culture in Brazilian Amazon Wed, 20 Nov 2013 15:24:44 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet Antônio de Oliveira on the patio at his farm where he dries achiote, one of the traditional Amazonian crops that now grow side by side with oil palm. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet /IPS

Antônio de Oliveira on the patio at his farm where he dries achiote, one of the traditional Amazonian crops that now grow side by side with oil palm. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet /IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet

Thousands of small farming families in Pará, in the Amazon jungle in northeast Brazil, have turned to the African oil palm as a new source of income, through contracts with biofuel companies. Strange bedfellows, which poses cultural and economic challenges.

The small farm of Antônio de Oliveira smells like a mixture of oranges, black pepper and achiote or annatto (Bixa orellana), a shrub whose fruit is harvested for its seeds, which contain a natural dye that has coloured his farm red.

“I didn’t know anything about oil palm…it’s really different to work with, it’s a queer bird, and complicated,” said Oliveira, who signed a contract with the biofuel company Biopalma three years ago to plant African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), known as “dendê” in Brazil.

Biopalma belongs to the Vale mining company, and has 60,000 hectares of oil palm of its own. In addition, it buys the output of small farmers through its Family Agriculture programme.

The company plans to use palm oil to produce biodiesel to run the machinery and vehicles at its mines.

“I wasn’t prepared for dendê. I don’t like to have to count how many plants I have or to make a square neat plot to plant them. I planted them here and there,” the 65-year-old farmer tells IPS, explaining that he used to make a living selling black pepper, oranges and achiote.

Oliveira began to work at the age of 10 “from sunup to sundown” as a day labourer, and says he regrets that he received so little education. “When I write something, my wife tells me a lot of letters are missing,” he says, laughing.

He learned math out of necessity, and uses it to calculate his yield of fruit from the oil palm, for example, which takes five years to begin to fully produce.

Currently, he harvests some 8,000 kilos every two weeks, earning around 120 dollars a ton. But he says that barely covers expenses, because he has to pay four assistants.

But unlike black pepper, which produces one harvest a year, oil palm fruit is harvested every 15 days. So he hopes to soon buy a “really nice” pickup truck, to transport his produce and take his family on trips.

“My dream is to see [the southern city of] Rio Grande do Sul. When it’s warm; I won’t go when it’s cold,” he says with a smile, explaining that he is used to the warm climate of the rainforest.

“Some of the farmers who are associates of the company have problems managing their businesses,” Biopalma technician Charles Vilarino tells IPS. “But Oliveira already works with several products, and in practice he is a small businessman. He has to keep track of how much money is coming in and going out, how much he spends on each harvest.”

The firm has signed up 350 families to produce palm oil fruit, and by 2015 plans to incorporate 1,650 more, on a total of 20,000 hectares.

When they join the oil palm programmes and agree to dedicate up to 10 hectares of land to cultivating the palm fruit, farmers receive credit from the federal government as well as technical assistance and a guarantee that their output will be purchased for 30 years.

But difficulties abound. In the north of the state of Pará many farmers have no means of transport to carry their products to market, and there is no strong tradition of setting up cooperatives to come up with collective solutions to their problems.

“They told me that soon we’ll have to carry the fruit to the [Biopalma] plant [in the municipality of Mojú], and I don’t have a truck yet. What’ll I do?” says a worried Oliveira.

Biopalma acts as an intermediary for institutions like the Brazilian Support Service for Micro and Small Enterprises (SEBRAE) to offer farmers courses in management and cooperatives.

“We can’t force them to organise in cooperatives,” Biopalma’s analyst of communications and social projects Sauer Teles tells IPS. “That has to come from them, our associates. But we brought in SEBRAE because they were interested.”

The Biofuel Watch Centre, created by Repórter Brasil, an investigative reporting NGO that provides journalists with news on environmental and social justice issues, produced a report in June on the incompatibility of the dendê culture with family farming in Pará.

The study says Eco Dendê, a government programme that offers credit to farmers to get involved in palm oil cultivation, “holds out a promising future that the family farmers are dreaming of, but its promises of profits could end up being false.”

“So much has been promised, and so little has been discussed about its impact on the traditional way of life of these rural communities,” says Judge Marcus Barberino, who specialises in labour relations in the countryside, and was quoted by the report.

Belém Bionergia, a joint venture between Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras and Portugal’s Galp Energia, will also promote the planting of dendê for the production of biodiesel.

The company has contracts with 280 families, and plans to expand that number to a total of 600 families.

On the way to an interview with one of the families, IPS came across the farm of a family that is not involved in the new dendê boom.

Of the eight members of the family, only the one-year-old baby was not working when IPS stopped in. The father, Reginaldo Dias, was toasting cassava flour in a wood-fired oven, the grandparents and children were peeling cassava roots, and Dias’s wife was grating cassava.

It is a form of survival, but a cultural ritual as well. The surplus cassava flour that the family won’t consume is sold at the market to buy “other things we need: sugar, beans and rice,” Dias tells IPS.

A few kilometres away lives José Ribamar Silva, involved in Belém Bionergia’s biodiesel programme.

A year and a half ago he planted dendê on 10 hectares of his farm. On the remaining 15 he continues to produce pineapple, black pepper, cassava and beans, along with achiote and other native Amazonian crops.

“There was a time when black pepper brought in a good profit, but not anymore – it’s too much work for too little money, so when the dendê arrived, I decided to join in,” Silva tells IPS.

He says he hopes the oil palm will make it possible for his kids to stay in school, adding that “their future is the most important thing for me.”

“You can’t jump into a ‘green’ model without addressing social questions,” says João Meirelles, director of the Peabirú Institute, which provides advice on social and environmental issues to companies involved in the oil palm sector.

When the big companies come in with their requirements, regulations and contracts with legal jargon, “it can produce a shock in a region with a different social and land tenure context, where there are basic unresolved problems,” he tells IPS.

In Pará, average monthly income is less than 50 dollars per person. Only four percent of small farmers have legal title to their land, and 40 to 50 percent of the local population is illiterate. Farmers continue to use the slash and burn technique to clear the rainforest and prepare the land for planting.

Agricultural techniques “do not change overnight,” Meirelles says. In his view, the expansion of oil palm in the Amazon rainforest, “based on mega-companies with a tradition of excellence, is incompatible to some extent with traditional family farming.”

But these companies, he says, can play “a transformative role,” strengthening the local communities’ connection to society and improving conditions among rural families in Pará.

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Las Pavas Extracts a Miracle from God Thu, 14 Nov 2013 22:03:51 +0000 Constanza Vieira Carmen Moreno in the Las Pavas community kitchen. Credit: Gerald Bermúdez/IPS

Carmen Moreno in the Las Pavas community kitchen. Credit: Gerald Bermúdez/IPS

By Constanza Vieira
LAS PAVAS/BOGOTÁ , Nov 14 2013 (IPS)

The rural community of Las Pavas in northern Colombia received this year’s National Peace Prize Wednesday in recognition of its peaceful struggle for land that is claimed by an oil palm company, in a case that became an international symbol of the conflict over land in this country.

The day before, the members of the community, organised in the Asociación Campesina de Buenos Aires (Asocab – Peasant Association of Buenos Aires), were formally recognised as victims of forced displacement in a ceremony held in the offices of the government’s Unit for Integral Assistance and Reparations for Victims in Bogotá.

Inclusion on the official Registry of Victims strengthens Asocab in its legal battle against the company with which it is disputing ownership of the land – Aportes San Isidro SA.

As of Oct. 1 the registry included the names of 5,087,092 victims of forced displacement, out of a total of 5,845,002 victims of crimes committed since 1985 in Colombia’s nearly half-century civil war.

Adjacent to the 1,338-hectare Las Pavas hacienda, Buenos Aires is a small village in the municipality of El Peñón in the northern province of Bolívar, some 270 km southeast of the provincial capital Cartagena de Indias.

The village, which has a single street, is on Papayal island located between the river of that name and the Magdalena river, which crosses Colombia from south to north.

People in this area live in villages like Buenos Aires and depend on fishing, farming and raising farm animals for a living.

Through the Unit for Integral Assistance and Reparations for Victims, the state has rectified its previous position, and now officially recognises that the community was forcibly displaced at least twice from Las Pavas, where they worked the land.

“This is an admission of judicial incomprehension because it wasn’t understood that this community was displaced from its source of livelihood, not its place of residence” in Buenos Aires, said Juan Felipe García with the Javeriana Pontifical University’s legal clinic on land, which is providing legal assistance to Asocab.

“Today we’re going to celebrate because the truth has triumphed,” he told IPS.The campesinos want to change the name of Las Pavas, “which reminds us of difficult times,” says Misael Payares. It will now be called Milagro de Dios (Miracle of God).

The decision benefits 464 people belonging to the 124 families grouped together in Asocab. However, it does not imply recognition of ownership of the Las Pavas land.

The dispute over ownership of the hacienda is a separate legal case, which is before the Council of State and could drag on for 10 more years, the director of the legal clinic, Roberto Vidal, told IPS.

“What lies ahead now is working with the community to decide what measures they want to prioritise; reaching all of the institutional agreements necessary; coordinating with the various institutions; and obtaining the reparations they are demanding,” the director of the Victims Unit, Paula Gaviria, told IPS.

“We have to wait for the authorities to comply,” said Asocab leader Misael Payares, “so that we can see our dream come true, which is to stay in Las Pavas.”

The hacienda has been at the centre of the wider dispute over land in Magdalena Medio, a stunningly beautiful region that used to be coveted by the drug barons because of its location, which is strategic in the logistics of the trafficking of cocaine by air.

On a nearby farm, Rancho Lindo, planes landed and took off until 1983. “Were they shipping firewood, manioc, yams, or what?” Payares quipped.

Since that year, Jesús Emilio Escobar Fernández, a cousin of and front man for notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar (1949-1993), has figured on paper as the owner of Las Pavas.

Up to 1963 the land was unused publicly owned rural property.

The hacienda was abandoned after 1992, as a result of the crackdown on Escobar’s Medellín drug cartel. An enormous tree growing out of a swimming pool is testament to the fact that the property was abandoned.

The people of Buenos Aires, who have large families and are often illiterate, decided then to plant crops on part of the land of Las Pavas, and set up the Association of Peasant Women of Buenos Aires.

Later they learned that, according to article 52 of a 1994 law, the owners of privately-owned rural land lost their property rights if the land was used for drug trafficking or if it had been abandoned for at least three years.

So they occupied Las Pavas, and Asocab was born in 1997, to cultivate cacao, plantain and oak.

The left-wing guerrillas (which emerged in Colombia in 1964) used to simply pass by Buenos Aires, on their way to a nearby hill covered with coca crops, which drew many temporary harvest workers.

Sometimes they would demand payment of a tax, in the form of a chicken or a pig, from the campesinos working Las Pavas, and once they shot and killed a man who they accused of being an army informant.

When the far-right paramilitaries (which began to be formed in 1981) arrived in the area along the Papayal river in 1998 and set up camp a 20-minute walk from Buenos Aires, the guerrillas pulled out.

The paramilitaries “started to kill people,” one of the founders of the women peasant association, Carmen Moreno – whose brother is ‘disappeared’ – told IPS.

Bodies missing the head or legs would float down the river past Buenos Aires. “Even the kids would see them. And they would come shouting ‘Mommy! Mommy! There’s a leg floating by….It’s a woman, mommy, because the toenails are painted!”

But all through those years, hunger would push the villagers, confined to Buenos Aires, to brave their fear and panic over and over again and return to Las Pavas to plant and harvest their crops.

In 2006 they began the legal proceedings to get the state to revoke the existing land title, under the 1994 law. They even applied for and were granted farming loans from state institutions.

But in 2007 it turned out that the front man Escobar Fernández had sold Las Pavas to the companies Aportes San Isidro and CI Tequendama – the latter of which belongs to the Daabon group.

These firms say that no authority informed them that the private ownership status of the land was in question – which made it legally impossible to buy or sell the land.

The companies set up an oil palm production project, drying up wetlands, diverting streams and blocking roads.

President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) made oil palm production his administration’s chief agribusiness strategy, and his successor Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) continued that policy.

The government decided that 66,000 hectares of oil palm should be grown in Papayal, and that a palm oil refinery to produce biofuels should be installed there.

Oil palm is the third-largest crop in Colombia, planted on more than 400,000 hectares and employing over 130,000 workers, according to the international organisation Solidaridad, which promotes responsible food production and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Oil palm has great production potential compared to other oil-producing plants, and its use is growing in the food, hygiene and cosmetics industries as well as the emerging biodiesel industry.

But in Las Pavas, palm oil is no longer being produced, and the legal battle continues.

In 2009, the companies in question got the police to evict the local campesinos. The incident cost Daabon its contract as the main palm oil supplier for The Body Shop cosmetics chain, whose parent company is L’Oreal.

Daabon preferred to pull out of the project rather than negotiate with Asocab, as The Body Shop had urged it to.

The local campesinos returned to Las Pavas in 2011. Since then they have been living there, some of them in shifts, in a settlement with two dirt roads running between improvised dwellings covered with black plastic.

In the hacienda house, Aportes San Isidro has posted armed men, without official authorisation.

The campesinos constantly complain about intimidation, destruction of crops, tires shot out on Asocab’s tractors, theft of livestock, or fires set to seeds stocks or nearby brush by incendiary device attacks on the camp.

“An outlaw group no longer has control; a few companies do,” said Payares.

“We haven’t had a human victim yet, because we have been smart enough to keep that from happening,” said Efraín Alvear, the community’s historian.

“Conquest without rifles” is the title of the book he has been writing by hand for years about the story of Asocab, he told IPS.

After their inclusion in the registry of victims and the award of the National Peace Prize, the campesinos plan to change the name of Las Pavas. “That name reminds us of difficult times,” says Misael Payares. It will now be called Milagro de Dios (Miracle of God).

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Oil Palm Expands on Deforested Land in Brazil’s Rainforest Wed, 13 Nov 2013 15:58:59 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet African palm mixed with native vegetation along a road in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

African palm mixed with native vegetation along a road in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
MOJÚ/TOMÉ-AÇÚ, Pará, Brazil , Nov 13 2013 (IPS)

The green of the oil palm plantations is unbroken along kilometre after kilometre of red soil, devastated in the past by loggers and ranchers. The oil palm, a sign of alarm for some and of hope for others, is here to stay in the Amazon rainforest state of Pará in the extreme north of this country.

The vegetation along the road that sets out from Belém, the state capital, has lost the deep-green exuberance of the rainforest, which has been replaced by “dendê”, as the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is known in Brazil.

The traffic jams in the city give way to over 150 km of paved and dirt roads, lined by oil palm plantations and the occasional cattle pasture, and interrupted every once in a while by a small town.

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazil’s Amazon region lost 111,087 sq km of forest cover between 2004 and 2012, including 44,361 sq km in Pará.

The Agropalma company, which sells palm oil to the food, hygiene and cosmetics industries, set up shop 27 years ago on this land initially cleared to make way for cattle pasture. It now owns more than 39,000 km of dendê in Pará.

Rat poison

IPS had access to formal complaints that were investigated by the Pará public prosecutors office on the supposed use of banned rat poison in oil palm plantations.

The plantations reportedly use Klerat – authorised only for accredited companies, in urban settings – to combat wild rodents.

Klerat is a powerful anticoagulant that causes internal bleeding and does not kill immediately. If people hunt and eat an animal that has ingested the poison, they run the risk of being poisoned as well.

More recently it was followed by other companies, interested in biodiesel: Belém Bioenergia (BB), owned by the state-run Petrobras and the private Portuguese firm Galp Energia, and Biopalma, a palm oil producer that was purchased by the Vale mining company.

“It is an economically sustainable, environmentally correct and socially enriching project,” BB’ agribusiness director, Antônio Gonçalves Esmeraldo, told IPS.

According to the executive, BB chooses the land it buys based on agroecological mapping by the Brazilian governmental agricultural research agency, Embrapa, which highlights areas that have already been deforested and degraded by cattle ranchers.

Oil palm employs 10,914 people in this state of nearly eight million people.

An 8,500-hectare estate leased by BB, which employed five people when it was dedicated to cattle-raising, will give work to 850 locals once it has been planted in oil palm, Esmeraldo said.

The company aims to plant oil palm on a total of 60,000 hectares by 2015. It has planted half of that so far, including 6,000 hectares tended by family farmers who will sell the company their output, and the rest of which are leased to large landholders.

Biopalma, for its part, will obtain oil from 60,000 hectares of its own, and from the harvest of another 20,000 hectares farmed by 2,000 small producers.

The aim is biodiesel to mix in a proportion of 20 percent with the gasoil used to run the mining company’s machinery and the locomotives of Vale, César Abreu, the firm’s director of bioenergy, told IPS.

According to Melquíades Santos Filho, Biopalma’s communications manager, dendê helps restore the biological balance of degraded land by mixing with native flora. He said his company has managed to get native species that are nearly extinct, like the jaguar, to reappear in the plantation forests.

In 2012, oil palm covered 140,000 hectares in Pará, and 67 percent of the production went to the food and cosmetics industries and 33 percent to biofuels, according to a study by agronomist D’Alembert Jaccoud.

The private sector projects extending that surface area to 329,000 hectares by 2015 and expanding the portion destined to biofuel to 47 percent, Jaccoud told IPS.

The government of Pará says that by 2022, oil palm plantations for biofuel will cover 700,000 hectares.

The Programme for the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil determines which degraded areas are apt for planting with oil palm. According to Embrapa, some 10.4 million hectares of already deforested and degraded land are available.

Processing the fruit of the oil palm in Biopalma, a municipality in Mojú in the northern state of Pará. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Processing the fruit of the oil palm in Biopalma plant in Mojú, a municipality in the northern state of Pará. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

The expansion would make Brazil the world’s third-largest producer of palm oil, after Indonesia and Malaysia, according to the government of Pará.

But the fear is that this country will follow in the footsteps of Indonesia and Malaysia, which today supply 86 percent of the global market thanks to intense deforestation, partly by forest fires that create clouds of smoke that even affect the rest of Southeast Asia.

After Africa, where legal insecurity paves the way for land-grabbing by Chinese and European countries, “the other great frontier is the Amazon rainforest, where Brazil has the biggest stock of land,” Jaccoud said.

The National Biofuel Production Programme is fomenting the planting of oil palm. By law, gasoil vehicles in Brazil must use a mix of five percent biodiesel, and the goal is to reach seven percent. It would be “an obligatory captive market,” Jaccoud said.

The Ministry of Agrarian Development has staked its bets on biofuel, which is obtained from soy, sunflower, castor, canola and oil palm, among other species.

Proponents point out that biodiesel releases fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and that it contributes to diversifying the country’s energy mix.

The government also hopes to reduce imports of gasoil.

And by promoting family farming of oil palm, it is working to generate income and jobs, while stimulating local economies in rural areas.

Jaccoud said that while the government’s programmes are well-intentioned, the necessary controls and oversight are still missing.

He said there is a danger that land ownership will become further concentrated, that consumption of pesticides will grow, and that the areas on the outskirts of large cities will become even poorer and more dangerous as a result of rural migration.

Guilherme Carvalho, an educator with the non-governmental programme FASE Amazônia, is worried that palm oil companies are trying “to force family farmers to invest in this monoculture crop and abandon food crops, which would create food insecurity, a loss of autonomy over their land and dependence on market prices.”

The contracts that Biopalma and BB sign with small farmers establish that they only have to use 10 hectares of their land for oil palm, while the rest remains free for growing food and other traditional crops.

But for now, family farms represent only a small part of the oil palm plantations in Pará.

João Meirelles, director of the Peabirú Institute, said oil palm is “an attempt to restore the jungle” in tropical areas, and is preferable to soy or cattle.

But he appealed to the “social responsibility” of companies, urging them to avoid the pitfalls of the sugar cane industry, where land is concentrated in a few hands and precarious labour conditions prevail among migrant workers.

Biopalma director Márcio Maia dismissed the argument that land ownership is overly concentrated.

“In the Amazon region there are major irregularities in land titling, which scares away important players who are interested in investing in this crop,” he said.

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