Weekly Roundup, May 22

Photo: Anna Vogt

Photo: Anna Vogt

Latin American Allies Resist U.S. Strategy in Drug Fight

Colombia just discarded a cornerstone of the American-backed fight against drugs, blocking the aerial spraying of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. Bolivia kicked out the United States Drug Enforcement Administration years ago and allows farmers to grow small amounts of the crop. Chile, long one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, is gathering its first medical marijuana harvest. Across the Americas, governments are increasingly resisting the tenets of the United States-led approach to fighting drugs, often challenging traditional strategies like prohibition, the eradication of crops, and a militarized stance to battling growers in a fundamental shift in the region.

Ayotzinapa Families in UK: Europe Shares Blame for Disappeared

Family members and supporters of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students made their final stop of a European tour in London Monday night. “Among the objectives of the caravan is to highlight the responsibility of European governments in the grave human rights violations committed against the 43 students,” states the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Guerrero, which provides vital support to victims’ families in the ongoing search for their loved ones. “They have signed cooperation agreements with Mexico on security and trade, which has involved the sale of arms and providing training to the police and Mexican military, although Mexico continues violating human rights.”

Poverty in Nicaragua drives children out of school and into the workplace

As leaders meet in South Korea this week for the World Education Forum, Bluefields – and Nicaragua as a whole – offers a snapshot of the huge challenges that still remain to get children into school. The links between leaving school and child labour are multifarious, but poverty plainly drives both. Nicaragua – a country of 6.1 million people – is the second poorest in the Americas after Haiti. It has the largest youth bulge in Latin Americawith more than 2 million school-aged children, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Unesco. Half of all children and adolescents live in poverty.

Guatemala Anti-Corruption Movement Tells President ‘Resign Now’

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is under increasing pressure from civil society to step down amid calls for systemic change in the wake of a corruption scandal that forced a government shake-up in recent weeks. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Guatemala City Saturday calling for President Perez Molina’s resignation as part of a broader campaign demanding an end to government corruption. The demonstration was the largest of a recent wave of major protests of the growing “Renuncia Ya” movement pressuring top officials to leave the government.

The Beatification of Óscar Romero

Romero was indeed deliberately and intensely political. He discovered the power of the archbishopric and decided to use it to influence the Salvadoran political process in favor of the victims and against the military regime. But his direct confrontation with the established powers can’t explain his assassination. He was killed because those powers thought they could get away with it. And they did, because Salvadoran history, for them, was a lesson in controlling the system through repression.

El Salvador is on pace to become the hemisphere’s most deadly nation

The aggressive posture of police and soldiers worries human rights groups in El Salvador. Jeanne Rikkers, who has worked on police and human rights issues for years in San Salvador, said that as she takes testimony from citizens about disappeared relatives or other abuses, “people are reporting things to you that sound like the ’80s.”

Dialogue on reparations for Haiti is long overdue

Haiti has long held the title of poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Scapegoated in the Americas for disease, economic troubles and crimes, Haiti has seen little but contempt from the international community since its inception. At the core of Haiti’s economic history lies a debt forced upon it by its former colonizer, France. And while Haiti paid in blood and money for its independence from France, the French government refuses to open the discussion for reparations.

Drugs, migrants and rebels: Life along Darién’s Gap

The border between Panama and Colombia is perplexingly unique. It’s the meeting point of two countries and two continents – North and South America – with long, connected histories of trade and migration. Yet it’s one of the only international frontiers without a pliable road across it. The 225km boundary, stretching from the Caribbean coast through dense mountainous jungle and swamps to the Pacific Ocean, has no formal crossings for people or cargo.

Fragmenting Criminal Gangs: Mexico Follows Colombia

With the splintering of its once hegemonic cartels and the emergence of smaller groups that contract themselves out for various criminal jobs, Mexico in 2015 does not look that dissimilar from Colombia circa 2008 to 2011. During that time, Colombia saw a plethora of criminal groups emerge after the demobilization of its right-wing paramilitary forces. The government called these groups BACRIM, from the Spanish acronym for “criminal bands.” In 2009, Colombian security forces counted nine such groups in the country. There were other, higher counts released around this time — for its 2011 report, Colombian think-tank Indepaz counted five major BACRIM and eight smaller groups.

Bolivia turns its soldiers into bread makers during 48-hour bakers’ strike – video

A strike by bakers in Bolivia has seen the government turn to its soldiers to help combat the nation’s bread shortage. The government called in troops to become makeshift bread makers after bakers went on a 48-hour strike to protest against the government’s decision to scrap subsidies on wheat flour.

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A Step in the Right Direction: Stopping Aerial Fumigations in Colombia

Giles Eanes lives and works in Istmina, Choco as part of the MCC Seed program. This blog was first posted on his personal blog

Glyphosate has been in the news a lot lately. Also known as Roundup, this chemical has been used for the past twenty years as part of the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, a program supposedly designed to decrease the production of coca, the principal ingredient in the production of cocaine, the drug that notoriously has lined the pockets of Colombian narcotraffickers, guerillas, paramilitaries, among other powers. But although 4 million acres have been sprayed over the past two decades, the millions invested in spraying don’t seem to be working too well; in fact, coca production levels have actually increased this year. In March, the World Health Organization released a report stating that glyphosate is carcinogenic. This report caught the attention of many on an international level, and Colombia’s ombudsman office, Ministry of Health, and even the president have all made statements demanding that aerial fumigations of glyphosate be stopped. Let’s be clear: these are steps in the right direction, and ending aerial spraying of glyphosate is a very good thing.

Cacao tree fumigated in Dipurdú

Cacao tree fumigated in Dipurdú

However, not all are on board with ending the usage of glyphosate in Colombia. The Colombian Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzon, is one of them. He says that “These tools (fumigations) reduce narco-traffiking, insecurity, and crime,” and he feels that under no circumstance should the state stop fumigations. Former US ambassador to Colombia William Brownston agrees, adding that “Colombia is a sovereign country and it must do what reflects its national interest, but they should take a serious look at the scientific evidence. There is not one single example of a person who has suffered damages from glyphosate in Colombia in the past 20 or 21 years.” Unsurprisingly, current senator and U.S. presidential hopeful Marco Rubio too throws his full support behind continuing aerial fumigations.

Naturally, Monsanto, the corporation who infamously brought us Agent Orange in Vietnam and produces the glyphosate used in Colombia, denies the WHO report, saying, “This conclusion is inconsistent with the decades of ongoing comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world that have concluded that all labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health. This result was reached by selective ‘cherry picking’ of data and is a clear example of agenda-driven bias. ”

More farmland fumigated in Dipurdú

More farmland fumigated in Dipurdú

Last Novermber I wrote about Ricardo Murillo on the Seed blog, a farmer from Bebedó, a member of the Mennonite Brethren church, and a beneficiary of the cacao program who has been displaced twice by violence and more recently due to losing his crops to fumigations. In January, I heard stories from Buenavista, an indigenous Wounaan community located close to the Pacific Coast. Community members have long drunk the water from the river because it is not contaminated, as there is no mining nearby. But lately adults and children alike have suffered from a mysterious respiratory illness that some say is being caused by aerial fumigations farther inland that is leaking into the river system. In February, while visiting farms in Dipurdú, I met three farmers who had lost cacao, yuca, plantains, and bananas to fumigations. In March, I heard from two more cacao farmers from El Tigre, one of which lost 4,000 cacao trees, not to mention the rest of his crops from fumigations in December. He also tells of health problems caused by swimming or bathing in the river.

These are just a few stories only from the San Juan and Baudó regions of Chocó, told to only me, from only the last year. Imagine how many more stories exist in all of Colombia from the past 20 years of this failed program.

Fumigated cacao crops in El Tigre

Fumigated cacao crops in El Tigre

So now we have conflicting stories, reports, and evidence from different sides. Pinzon states that fumigations help decrease narcotrafficking, insecurity, and crime. But just the opposite seems to be true. Statistics point to the fact that fumigation of glyphosate is not effective at eliminating coca (in 2014, there was an increase in coca cultivation of 20%); but I would say it is very effective at killing legal crops and poisoning soil, crops that sustain campesinos that without usable land are forced to abandon the life they know. They become a number, one of millions displaced by the armed conflict, a conflict primarily rooted in the injustice and violence directed toward campesinos by the wealthy elite of Colombia. That doesn´t sound like stability or security to me, but rather perpetuating a culture of violence and injustice.

The town of Dipurdú

The town of Dipurdú

And what about Brownstone’s claim? Well, science has pointed to the fact that RoundUp is in fact quite harmful to human health, something that any Colombian campesino who has been affected by the chemical would tell him. He should talk to the farmers of the cacao program or the people of Buenavista. To me, this, as well as Marco Rubio’s statements further demonstrate the vast disconnection that exists between politicians sitting behind desks in Bogota and Washington and campesinos, afro-colombians and indigenous people, those unjustly affected  by those policies.

Which brings us to Monsanto. Let’s say for argument’s sake that they are right and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if that is the case, how can spraying a chemical cocktail that kills many varieties of plants indiscriminately over farmland, water sources, and ecosystems where campesinos, live, sleep, eat, and wash NOT negatively affect the health of said persons, not to mention those ecosystems?

El Tigre

El Tigre

Aerial fumigation needs to stop and on May 9, President Santos called for their suspension. What is the answer, then, to stemming the flow of cocaine? I don’t know. Colombia’s context is complex, and there is not one simple solution. But if the political elites truly want an end to the 50-year-old armed conflict, they need to look at their history and listen to the campesinos, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous peoples who have suffered from the violence, fumigation, and injustices directed at them. But as long as those in power are benefiting from the conflict, whether through narco money or from northern funding of an un-winnable war on drugs, there will always exist the drive to maintain the status quo.

But we continue on in the struggle to change the system. Constructing true peace may be a long and complicated process in Colombia, but ending fumigations is taking a step in the right direction.

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Weekly Round-Up, May 15

La Vega, Guatemala Photo: Anna Vogt

La Vega, Guatemala Photo: Anna Vogt

The Cost of Stemming the Tide

A report published today by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute (HRI) finds that Mexico is currently falling short of its human rights obligations and is putting migrant children at risk of being returned to violent and dangerous situations in their home countries by failing to provide adequate access to international protection. The report is the product of months of research, including dozens of interviews with affected children and families, advocates and government officials and agency staff. Many of the Central American children interviewed were seeking asylum in Mexico.

U.S. Ambassador Urges Mexico To End “Alarming Levels Of Impunity” In Crimes Against Reporters

“Mexico remained one of the world’s most dangerous places for media workers in 2014, and freedom of expression faced new threats… multiple attacks on journalists and media outlets were carried out during the year, reporters faced police aggression while covering protests, and self-censorship remained widespread,” said the group.

Honduras’ latest coup

Last month, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled that Article 239 of the national constitution was no longer applicable. The article prohibited the re-election of presidents, who were limited to a single four-year term, and furthermore stipulated that any president “directly or indirectly” supporting a modification of said article would be immediately removed from his post and banned from public office for 10 years.

Guatemala on brink of crisis after vice-president falls to corruption scandal

“We could be heading for chaos,” she said. “If the president is forced to resign there would be a power vacuum and the consequences of that could be terrible.” Others, however, see a chance for forcing political reforms that could start rooting out the corruption endemic in many Guatemalan institutions.

‘The Most Complex Elections’ Since the Signing of the Peace Accords

El Salvador’s electoral democracy has made enormous gains in recent years. But increasing politically-motivated Supreme Court interventions threaten the nation’s democratic institutions. Unfortunately, it does not seem like these interventions will stop anytime soon. On April 28, in a move that was described by Sigfrido Reyes, current head of the Salvadoran Congress, as a technical coup d’état against the March elections, the Supreme Court, ruled that the investiture of 24 elected legislators would be temporarily halted. This ruling was made after the Supreme Court accepted appeals from losing candidates from the PCN, GANA, PDC and CD parties to contest the results.

Measuring the Real Impact of a $50 Billion Engineering Marvel

Rather than consulting the local indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, as required by national and international law, the government has reportedly offered money to communities to make them sign papers, set up power point presentations about the canal’s benefits, or simply told them next to nothing, merely marking the canal’s route. Forced relocation of people along the route may be inevitable, and many fear that the Rama language, spoken by only a handful of people, would be totally eradicated were the Rama people forced off their constitutionally guaranteed lands.

How a group of Dominicans were stripped of their nationality and now face expulsion to Haiti

They face expulsion to a country many do not know, where they have no family ties and whose language they do not speak. Even if they are not deported, the threat will presumably hang over them and they will have formally lost their status as equals within the DR. For Dominicans of Haitian descent, many are discovering that despite what their paperwork may say, they are foreigners in their country of birth. It is hard to escape the conclusion that for the Dominican state, they were never really citizens in the first place.

Reparations issue clouds Hollande’s Haiti trip

Ira Kurzban, a civil-rights lawyer based in Miami, told Al Jazeera that France’s obligation is clear: “France does owe something to Haiti given the circumstances that the Haitian people see themselves in. “They should have clean water, they should have infrastructure, these are the kinds of things that the French can help with right away.” Haiti was still paying off its so-called independence debt to France in 1947

Defying U.S., Colombia Halts Aerial Spraying of Crops Used to Make Cocaine

The government of Colombia on Thursday night rejected a major tool in the American-backed antidrug campaign — ordering a halt to the aerial spraying of the country’s vast illegal plantings of coca, the crop used to make cocaine, citing concerns that the spray causes cancer.

Review, Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change

Evo’s Bolivia is no doubt one of the most detailed and comprehensive assessments of Morales’s administration written to date. Its value lies in the authors’ capacity to contextualize the Bolivian experience regionally and globally, without losing sight of the country’s historical and social specificities. This work is an essential reference for those interested in studying the challenges and transformations of the Bolivian experiment that inspired global attention for attempting potential alternatives to capitalist development and colonialism.

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The Body of Christ

Katie Geluso, is a Salter currently serving in Mexico City. This post was adapted from her personal blog

Burundi’s president wants to run for an unconstitutional third term and the country might be on the brink of war.

The death toll in Nepal is over 8,000 and rising and thousands more are injured and homeless.

Violence and peaceful protests in Baltimore have the U.S. all the more divided on the issue of race.

ISIS is running amok and beheading people.

Nigeria and surrounding countries are still afflicted by violence between Muslims and Christians.

Mexico’s government has effectively suffocated the voices of the families of 43 missing students 7 months after the fact proving police violence and a corrupt government reigns supreme.

When I’m overwhelmed with big, monstrous problems and I can’t find words or thoughts to calm my mind and heart, my prayer inevitably becomes a meek “Jesus, come soon.”

When I spoke these three words to a friend, he reminded me, “We are his body.”


But he’s right.

Central to the Anabaptist faith is pacifism. Anabaptists will be quick to remind you that pacifism is not passive – it is an active peace seeking and active peace building.

Kate blog Body of Christ 1

So, I am to claim to be a part of the body of Christ and claim the label pacifist, I have to quit praying “Jesus come soon” as an excuse to sit back and be hopeless. Instead I need to recognize I am the hands and feet of Christ and I must run into the action with all its weight and despair and bring Jesus with me, remembering Jesus is already there.

So I pose a question to myself and to the Body of Christ: we are all hoping and praying for peace, but what are we doing to bring that peace? I’m not talking about engaging in heated arguments online, posting news that confirms your view, or clicking “like” on posts and comments to virtually vote for whom you agree with. Facebook doesn’t prevent war, heal the wounded, end police brutality, tranquilize extremism, reconcile opposing religions, redeem corrupt governments, or smooth over political relations.

And neither does this blog post. But you know what does?

Advocacy. Education. Protests. Service. Aid. Improved policy. Relationships.

I’ll ask myself and my fellow Christians again: what are you doing to bring peace? Are you acknowledging your race and or/economic privileges and reconciling that?   Are you giving money to NGOs that create real change? Are you serving in a community to educate and or serve people that need it? Are you participating in protests? Are you boycotting companies that take advantage of their workers? Are you preaching peace, justice, and reconciliation in the pulpit? Are you having meaningful, honest, respectful, face-to-face conversations with others about these issues?

Do I dare say what I really want to say?

If you aren’t actively bringing peace, you aren’t the body of Christ.

If I’m not actively bringing peace, I’m not the body of Christ.

Kate blog Body of Christ

A phrase often used in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Some resources for people that want to do peace:

Donate to the reliefs efforts in Nepal:   http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-25/how-help-nepal-7-vetted-charities-doing-relief-work-following-earthquake or https://donate.mcc.org/cause/nepal-earthquake

Talk with your church leaders/congregation about how to work towards racial reconciliation within your church community

Talk with your church leaders/congregation about how you can serve your community:  Union Church in Seattle is a great example of this. The fourth Sunday of each month, congregants serve Seattle by sharing meals with cancer patients, preparing meals for the homeless, making cards for the women’s shelter they host in the church each month, picking up trash in Lake Union via kayaks, etc.

Think about how you can serve; within your community, country, or internationally: MCC accepts families, single adults, and young adults for service terms all over the world: http://mcc.org/get-involved/serve  Currently, there are openings for the Seed program in Colombia.   (Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps are also great service organizations.)

Find a cause and a peaceful protest to attend in your area. You are bound to find other ways of getting involved by attending protests.

Write letters and make calls to your local representatives and/or companies to let them know about events/policies/products you approve and don’t approve of.  Each call/letter represents about 1,000 other people, so your voice counts and these people really do listen!

Sign online petitions. There are tons of success stories from simple on-line petitions.  This is one of the easiest things on this list (after boycotting, which involves not doing something) as it just requires your name and location.  And if it asks for an email address, just do it and unsubscribe when you get an unwanted email. It takes no more than two mouse clicks.  https://petitions.whitehouse.gov  and https://www.change.org are great sites for convenient peace and justice work.

Actions specifically relevant to issues and ongoing work in Latin America and the Caribbean:

Look into visiting Latin America or the Caribbean  as part of a learning tour or delegation to learn first hand about the issues and how you can advocate for them:

Mexico: Migration

Guatemala: Community Development

Check out the Advocacy campaigns you can get involved with, including Days of Prayer and Action for Peace in Colombia 

Stay informed on local issues by reading the Weekly Round-Up on this blog, an overview of news of the week.

The Third Way Cafe is continually publishing articles and blogs from around the world, with a Mennonite Perspective.

The MCC Washington and Ottawa blogs provide action opportunities and analysis.

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Weekly News Round-Up, May 8

Photo: Anna Vogt

Photo: Anna Vogt

New report: Displacement is rising in Latin America

Latin America was not exempt from the report’s purview, however; in fact, the IDMC reported that the region has experienced a 12 percent increase in displacement since last year. Putting a finer point on the data, the organization reported that just under half a million Latin Americans are newly displaced, bringing the total regional displacement statistic to “at least seven million.” Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru were among the countries deemed most problematic, with Colombia highlighted as especially vulnerable.

Perspectives on drug policy reform

In the lead up to the 2016 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016) studies and opinions are piling up.

They’re like ‘Circus Animals': Mexico’s Drug Lords and Other Prison Problems

So for the most part, most people who are in prison are those who were caught in the act. They were caught robbing something on the street. Those are who most of the inmates are. Poor people involved in theft. I don’t want to say that there aren’t important criminals in prison, there are. But proportionally, there’s very few in relation with the entire penal population. The truth is, much of the crimes — the more important crimes — remain unresolved. For example, 90 percent of the homicides that we saw under Calderon and during the first two years of this administration — 90 percent of those haven’t been resolved.

Schools shutting out US-educated Mexicans back home

The 2010 Mexican census identified 597,000 US-born children living in Mexico. The next census, out later this year, is expected to see a significant rise in those numbers. Children need birth certificates and documents that prove their level of education, and they have to be translated and stamped in such a way that the Mexican authorities accept them.  But parents are left to their own devices to navigate a complex situation, said Kuhner.

El Salvador gangs target police after failed truce

Cotto said that more must be done for the country’s most marginalized and that the national police — along with community police, private business and local government — must investigate the underlying causes of violence and crime. Last week a senior official proposed a law for the reintegration of gang members into mainstream society. In exchange for agreeing to abandon criminal activity, they would be offered economic support. However, police officers have been given a clear message: shoot criminals without fear of consequences. “This institution and the government will protect you,” said Police Chief Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde in January after the killing of seven officers in just over two weeks at the beginning of the year.

Fear, uncertainty prevail on San Salvador’s increasingly violent streets

“We are stuck in a bubble which is called El Salvador and which is totally violent,” he said, adding that most people, both ordinary citizens and officials, are too afraid to describe what is really happening for fear of retaliation from gang members. Ticas explained the police, the criminal investigators and the country’s institutions are all under attack as the gangs fight for territory and power. He said the gangs are growing stronger not weaker: “weapons, members, technology, organization — they have so much.” A series of grenade attacks on police stations, as well as the murder of police officers and soldiers, have demonstrated the gangs’ growing confidence.

This Nicaraguan woman answers sexism with spraypaint

Nicaraguan curator Juanita Bermudez remembers the “golden age” of street art during the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s. “The government supported murals as art forms, and people saw them as celebratory,” she says.“Graffiti is another language.” For women to be graffiti artists is even more remarkable, Bermudez says, “because in the past, it was considered a man’s occupation. It’s beautiful that women have the same impulse,” she says, adding that it’s proof that Nicaraguan society is evolving its conservative ideas about gender roles.

President of Honduras Offers Conflicting Messages on Police Militarization

Swapping the military for police often leads to cases of torture, murder, assault and other abuses – these soldiers are taught to use whatever tactics necessary to defeat “the enemy.” This strategy also lacks the investigative aspect that would be necessary to prosecute crimes and stem crime and violence in the long term. In Honduras, the increased, veiled funds to the PMOP, has diverted resources away from civilian police reform, which appears relatively stalled. A special law is even in place preventing the Attorney General’s regular prosecutors from carrying out investigations and prosecutions for PMOP soldiers.

Haiti: Paradise Is Overbooked

Haiti has a complex, bureaucratic land registry, as well as weak rule of law. It is very difficult for Haitians to prove a viable land title or get due process if their land is seized. On Île-à-Vache, Mesura and his wife are among the many residents who saw their property — land that they thought they owned — expropriated by the state in the initial phase of the development project. Frustrated that they weren’t being consulted about the seizures or about the tourism plans in general, residents sought to disrupt the project through a series of protests in December 2013. Since the conflicts over land erupted, private developers seem hesitant to break ground on the island, according to the mayor and one interested businessman.

5 years after the quake: Adequate housing still a distant dream for many Haitians

while much capital has been expended to try to address this situation and several hundreds of persons have benefitted from efforts made by private institutions and local partners – including many funded by CWS and MCC – it remains inconvertible that adequate, dignified and safe housing remains but a distant dream for too many of Haiti’s poorest people. Indeed, insufficient housing had long been one of Haiti’s most acute challenges; the destruction caused by the earthquake merely exacerbated these.

Last flight looms for US-funded air war on drugs as Colombia counts health cost

But after 20 years and 4m acres sprayed, Colombia now appears poised to make a dramatic about-face on what was once the keystone of its US-backed drug-fighting strategy. After the World Health Organisation’s cancer research arm found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”, the country’s health minister last week issued a recommendation that the government stop using the chemical in its aerial spraying programme.

Bolivia struggles with gender-based violence

The vast majority of domestic-violence complaints never reach trial in Bolivia, and of those that do, most never result in a sentence. The national newspaper La Razón reported last November that since Law 348 was passed there have been 206 cases of femicide, but only eight sentences — a conviction rate of just 4 percent. It’s difficult to find concrete statistics about how most cases play out, but attorney Teresa Torrico, who works with the legal-aid organization Women’s House in the Amazonian city of Santa Cruz, says that the overtaxed justice system leads many women to give up on their cases. This is in part a resource problem — there are only about 50 prosecutors in Bolivia who take on cases of violence against women, and they also work on human trafficking and child abuse. With so few prosecutors to go around, the burden of moving a case forward falls on victims and their families, requiring them to take time off work and spend money on transportation. Many people simply aren’t able to do either. “There is a very high percentage of cases that are just abandoned,” Torrico says.

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A Livelihood Threatened: Bolivia

Some of the dead fish that appeared on the shores of Lake Poopo. (Photo credit L. Vermeersch)

Some of the dead fish that appeared on the shores of Lake Poopo. (Photo credit L. Vermeersch)

 Elizabeth Vincent works with the Center for Ecology and the Andean People (CEPA), a friend organization of Mennonite Central Committee. 

In November this past year (2014) there was a calamitous wildlife die-off in Lago Poopo (Poh-po), a lake just to the south of Oruro, Bolivia. Local communities and the Technical University of Oruro have recorded that millions of fish and hundreds of birds washed up on the shores of the lake in a very short period of time. This die-off has directly affected at least five different communities around the lake who rely on fishing as their sole source of income, and has indirectly affected many more.

In the months that have followed, the national authorities have dismissed the event as a natural phenomenon caused by global climate change, and therefore, they have no responsibility nor can they do anything about it. However, a number of NGOs working in the region and many of the people who live in the affected communities do not solely blame climate change. Climate change is surely a part of the answer but the primary reason for the die-off is clear: mining contamination from state and privately owned mines.

It is common knowledge that Lake Poopo is a heavily contaminated lake. Tests of the water show high levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead as well as other heavy metals. In large part this is the result of very little regulation of the mines in the Oruro department. Even the waste storage and contamination facilities at the mines that have them tend to be old and faulty. One mine in particular dumps its unprocessed waste directly into a river that flows into Lake Poopo. While is still unclear why the die-off happened so suddenly, people are speculating that it is because the lake may have hit a critical level of contamination.

Valerio, one of the community leaders from Untavi walking back from the lake with dead birds in his hands. (Photo credit L. Vermeersch)

Valerio, one of the community leaders from Untavi walking back from the lake with dead birds in his hands. (Photo credit L. Vermeersch)

Almost overnight, several communities found their livelihoods severely threatened or completely gone and now have to figure out how to continue on. This led to a lot of raw emotion and confusion. The communities do not feel like they are receiving any support to move forward from the parties viewed as responsible. In total, approximately 1780 families are directly affected by the die off. For the several Uru communities, the oldest indigenous peoples in the Andes, their sole livelihood is fishing from the lake. In one Aymara community, Untavi, at least 50% of the population relied on fishing as their sole source of income. Six months on from the disaster there are still no fish in their region of the lake and the people are struggling to make ends meet. Before the die-off there was concern about the contamination in the fish but they were still widely marketed around the Bolivian highlands.

In response to these events and the outcry from the affected communities, the Center for Ecology and the Andean People (CEPA), which works closely with indigenous communities in the Altiplano, launched a campaign working with the affected communities and government ministries. This campaign involved lectures to raise awareness about the situation, working groups attempting to come up with sustainable solutions, and a summit to discuss ideas for how to move forward.

Leading up to the summit there were two days with lecture topics ranging from the effect of climate change, to the process of mineral extraction through dredging the lake and then selling them, to the cultural implications of the wildlife die-off. The purpose of these lectures was to provide the affected communities with a variety of perspectives on what is happening to the lake as well as to inform them on the different approaches which are being taken to study and preserve Lake Poopo.  From these lectures the communities gained a broader picture of what is being or can be done for the lake. The hope was for the communities to draw on these lectures to inform their own ideas for solutions that would be brought forward at the summit.

At the summit community members were able to share their opinions and desires in a town hall style meeting. (Photo credit L. Vermeersch)

At the summit community members were able to share their opinions and desires in a town hall style meeting. (Photo credit L. Vermeersch)

At the summit, participants ranging from community members, government ministries, and a variety of NGOs formed four separate working groups before convening together with their best ideas. The four working groups consisted of Economic Development, Climate Change and Biodiversity, Scientific Methodologies, and Sociocultural and Legal History. From all of the ideas that were presented, the group decided that their primary solution consists in  demanding of transparency, action, and accountability from the national and local government on how to revitalize the lake and the people’s livelihoods along with more regulation and oversight of the mines. The communities are committed to seeing demands met and will continue to struggle for their rights.

Moving forward, the hope of many community members and NGOs is to promote this disaster on a global level by connecting this issue with similar issues around the world. For example, they are considering linking this issue to the concern over fracking in the eastern United States in order to raise more international awareness. The hope is to inspire citizens to pressure the companies who are profiting from the exploitation causing the contamination to implement sustainable and responsible practices. Also, there is a desire for international pressure on foreign governments and Bolivia’s government to hold companies accountable for the consequences of their actions.

Hope is alive within the communities that the government and the international community will listen to their plea and will work together with them to help them preserve their culture and way of life.


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A Refugee Cross

Photo by Idun Skare

Photo by Idun Skare

David Sulewski, together with his wife Tibrine da Fonesca, works with MCC in Quito, Ecuador, coordinating the Refugee Project, a ministry of the Mennonite Church in Quito to refugees, the majority of whom are fleeing from the armed conflict in Colombia. This post was taken from their personal blog, Gathering Peace.

This week Tibrine and I visited an elderly couple that came to Ecuador as refugees a year ago this month. Their time here has not been easy. Both suffer from long bouts of illness. They struggle to make ends meet and rely heavily on aid organizations to pay rent and buy food.

Back in Colombia, the wife ran a restaurant and the husband, a resourceful handyman, had his own appliance repair shop. Now, with the wife too sick to work, the husband is trying to generate some income by operating a repair shop right out of their single occupancy room. Dozens of boxes filled with a varied assortment of electronic parts lie neatly organized on shelves he built along the wall. He showed us pots and pans that he pulled from the trash and refurbished, buffing them until they shined like new.

Of the many objects he resurrected from the trash, he pointed with particular satisfaction to a dark wooden cross with a silvery Jesus hanging on the wall.

“I found this cross in the trash in Colombia,” he said. He recounted how he had carried it with him when he escaped the violence in Colombia for an uncertain, new life in Ecuador. Further along on his way in another town he came across a statue of Jesus thrown away in the rubbish. He cleaned it off and placed it on the cross. Of the few possessions he carried with him, this crucifix was one of them.

I was touched by this elderly man humbled to scratch out a living from what others discard, in whose delicate searching found and recovered a rejected cross and a thrown-away Jesus.

Together in silence we contemplated the cross.

I felt a question arising within me. Do I perceive God in the massive flows of haggard refugees throughout the world and in the elderly ignored by societies that value efficiency and productivity?

And where am I? Am I by their side? Am I walking alongside them like the crucified God on this once discarded cross accompanies this elderly refugee couple?

Every month, an average of 1,000 refugees fleeing the armed conflict in Colombia cross the porous border into Ecuador. Colombia also has one of the highest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, averaged at around 6 million. The majority of refugees coming to Ecuador opt to settle in Quito in the hopes of finding housing, getting a job and enrolling their children in school. Discrimination is prevalent and severe, making integration very challenging.

A concrete way of walking alongside Colombians both inside and outside of Colombia is participating in Days of Prayer and Action, May 17-18. For more information, along with worship and advocacy resources, visit MCC Washington.

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Visas, Anger and Other Emotions

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By Anna Vogt, a service worker in MCC Colombia currently working with Justapaz, a Mennonite organization working for justice, peace and non-violent action in Colombia. Originally posted at: thellamadiaries.wordpress.com 

One mark of being a foreigner here is comparing stories. Bring up the visa processes and expect a collective groan before someone launches into a complicated tale filled with woe, blood tests and paperwork. We love to outdo each other with tales of time spent standing in lines and being sent from one office to another.

Don’t tell anyone this, therefore, but nothing went wrong when I got my new visa stamped in my passport last week. Once I knew I was approved, it was fun to take the morning off to head up north. I’m actually not sure, however, if I enjoyed going, or the relief of knowing that my visa was renewed made everything wonderful.

There have been moments when everything was up in the air. The last time I was in the office of Migracion Colombia, I was questioned for supposedly participating in political activities outside of the reach of my visa. On Wednesday morning, it was nice to only have to concentrate on the National Geographic show on attack nocturnal elephants on the waiting area television, instead of fearing deportation.

Yet my week has been far from calm. Diego Vecino was released from prison on Friday. I have hardly celebrated my own freedom to stay in Colombia but instead spent a lot of time this weekend wondering what the paramilitary boss who ordered the displacement of Mampujan, along with a lot of other very bad things, is doing. What do you eat for your first breakfast of freedom?

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I ate fried fish and coconut rice with Alexander in Mampujan during Holy Week as he told me of the fear running rampant in the nearby communities. Organizations were holding weekly meetings to figure out what to do when he was released. No one knew where or exactly when, but all were filled with dread at the panic of accidentally running into Diego Vecino on the street.

Alex has a different response. His vision is to return to sit down with Diego Vecino and talk, face to face, about what reconciliation means in practice, both personally and in his relationship with the region. Alex was part of a pilot program of a reconciliation and reparations committee formed to accompany the demobilization process of the AUC. He, along with other members of the community, was one of the few to participate in direct encounters with victimizers, managing to heroically overcome fear and the desire to take revenge. The thousands of remaining victims in the region have received no accompaniment and have no idea what to expect. Anything could happen.

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Justice and opportunities are so unequally applied. While Diego Vecino eats a gourmet breakfast, my friend Jorge Montes is still in jail. Not only is he innocent, he has never even had a trial.

Everytime I go to Migracion Colombia or think about my visa, I remember Jorge. The march we all participated it, as well as the general nonviolent movement in the Alta Montaña, were catalyzing actions for Jorge’s arrest and our visa process. While I do not want to be kicked out of Colombia, it does not seem fair that I am free to move in and out of this country while Jorge cannot even leave the building.

I have written about Diego Vecino’s imminent release and Mampujan’s response before. I am still angry. Technically, I believe in all the rhetoric we throw around through the peace world: reconciliation, restorative justice, coexistence, forgiveness, and all the rest of that jazz. But right now, I don’t really want to hear about it. All I can picture is Diego Vecino drinking fresh squeezed orange juice while Jorge sleeps on a mattress on the floor of an overcrowded cell.

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Yet in honour of Jorge and because I have the freedom to stay, I try to remember his words in one of his letters from prison.

 I have no remorse in my conscience, since I have never been a part of any armed group, and I will never be, since my weapons are the Colombian laws that allow me to struggle for the well-being of the most marginalized.

These terrible and inhuman events have filled me:

  1. With tolerance:  Because I do not hate and will not hate my oppressors;vengeance is of God, and God will pay each of us according to our deeds.

  2. With patience:  Because I have learned to have patience and manage my despair.

  3. With faith:  Because I have complete confidence that I walk free and with my head held high.

  4. With love:  Because I have no thirst for vengeance.

  5. With inner peace:  I think this is the most important, because my conscience does not accuse me and I am convinced that I have never participated and never will in acts that will cause me to repent and much less any that will affect those around me.

I am not as brave as Jorge or Alex or Manuela. Someday, however, I want to be. More than anything, I want the courage I learn from those around me to be part of the story I tell of the rest of my time here in Colombia, along with the party we will have when Jorge is free.

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Weekly Roundup, April 24

Dominoes, a popular pastime on Colombia´s Carribean Coast Photo: Anna Vogt

Dominoes, a popular pastime on Colombia´s Caribbean Coast Photo: Anna Vogt

No surge in kids crossing U.S.-Mexico border this summer, immigration official predicts

There won’t be nearly as many immigrant children who cross the border on their own this summer as there were last year, top officials say. Daniel Ragsdale, deputy director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said authorities expect far fewer migrant children and families than the influx last year that gained worldwide attention and left Border Patrol agents unable to process so many people.

A triumphant voice: Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)

Galeano was instrumental, a key figure among a number of giant Latin American thinkers who transformed the historiography of their region, and with their region, the world, by becoming the creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular. 

Border militarization destroys what it protects

In addition, new roads, towers, lights, sensors and the incursion of thousands of Border Patrol vehicles and aircraft into remote, sensitive areas have damaged natural, cultural and historic resources in the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borderlands. This infrastructure and associated operations also cause widespread harm to endangered species, such as the northern jaguar, and irreplaceable landscapes, such as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

Mexico’s Government Is Brushing Off Report of Another State Massacre of Unarmed Civilians

At least 16 reportedly unarmed civilians were killed during a day-long standoff with federal police on January 6 in Apatzingán, Michoacán. The city is one of many considered a battleground between armed criminal and vigilante groups in Michoacán’s “Tierra Caliente” region. The National Security Commission confirmed that it received a video “in which it is possible to infer presumed acts of use of excessive force and abuse of authority” in the case.

Mexican girl forcibly sent to US returns home

The near one-week ordeal for the 14-year-old ended after a DNA test proved that it was a case of mistaken identity and that the woman from Houston Dorotea Garcia was not her real mother. Alondra’s parents placed blame on the Mexican judge who refused to accept the pile of documents they presented as proof of Alondra’s identity, from baptismal records and a copy of her birth certificate to family photographs.

PHOTO-ESSAY: Caravan of the Mutilated

The men belong to the Associación de Migrantes Retornados con Discapacidad (AMIREDIS), an organization for migrants who lost limbs riding the cargo trains collectively known as La Bestia through Mexico. Their goal was to reach the United States and to speak with President Obama. “We want to see Obama so he can know the nightmare that immigrants face,” says José Luís Hernandez Cruz, the organization’s president. “Ask him to help generate jobs in Honduras so we can stop migrating.” As unlikely as that meeting seemed at the beginning of their trip, it appears to be even less possible now. Two of the men agreed to deportation, and pressure is on to deport the rest. The White House declined to comment for this story.

As gang violence surges, El Salvador fears bloody war

“The government has not given up on prevention and rehabilitation, (but) it is fighting the gangs with intensifying repression, which has unleashed an escalation of violence,” he told AFP. The killings underscore the breakdown in a truce the gangs declared in March 2012, which was brokered by the Catholic Church with behind-the-scenes help from then president Mauricio Funes.

Honduran indigenous rights campaigner wins Goldman prize

She said the award would strengthen the group’s campaigns. “It is an opportunity to give higher visibility to the violence of plunder, to the conflict, and also to the denunciations and resistance,” she said in an email response to questions by the Guardian. “It is an honour, and an acknowledgement of the enormous sacrifice and commitment made by Copinh and its planetary contributions.“ The prize coincides with a new report that identifies Honduras as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental and land activists, particularly those from indigenous groups.

HBO ‘Vice’ Series Slams Aid Efforts in Haiti

Despite billions of dollars and earnest promises, living conditions for many Haitians remain deplorable five years after the devastating earthquake there. A central culprit is a broken U.S. foreign-aid system, with no easy fixes. That is the grim takeaway from an investigation conducted by the news program Vice, titled “The Haitian Money Pit,” to air Friday on HBO.

More than 2,000 Candidates Enter Race For Haiti Political Seats

President Michel Martelly has ruled Haiti by decree since Parliament dissolved Jan. 12 when the terms of every member of the Chamber of Deputies, and a third of the Senate expired. The Senate had already been operating with only 20 of its 30 seats occupied because of previously missed elections, and lost its quorum after Jan. 12. The elections have been delayed by factors such as political feuding and lack of funding. Every mayoral post in the country is up for grabs, as are neighborhood leadership positions.

As Colombia Nears Peace Accord, The Question of U.S. Culpability Looms

In the end, Vega concludes that “the interference of the United States in the social conflict has been constant and direct from the late 1940’s and this has been expressed both in military aid and the promotion of policies of counter-insurgency.” He concludes that the U.S. prevented peaceful solutions to structural causes of the social conflict from succeeding in Colombia, and that the result was the prolongation and intensification of the conflict, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and the displacement of six million people.

Are Women the Key to Peace in Colombia?

But perhaps the most critical factor for the viability of the coming peace is the inclusion of women in the conversation. Around the world, when armed groups lay down their weapons, women are rarely part of the equation. In Colombia, where an estimated 30 to 40 percent of FARC members are female, this would be a crucial mistake. As the parties negotiate, they must consider the perspectives of female FARC combatants — as well as women from communities where former fighters will resettle. In studying 174 countries, Harvard researchers found that the single best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth or democracy, nor its ethnoreligious identity; it’s how well its women are treated.

Violentology: An Interview with Photojournalist Stephen Ferry

Stephen Ferry is an American photographer who has captured dangerous and tragic scenes of the Colombian armed conflict for twelve years. Ferry published a collection of his and his Colombian colleagues’ photos in a book titled “Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict.” Latin America News Dispatch interviewed Ferry at the International Center for Photography in New York about what he found most difficult to capture in the middle of a war, who the main protagonists are in his pictures and how photography contributes to Colombia’s peace process between the government and FARC rebels.

Cholitas paceñas: Bolivia’s indigenous women flaunt their ethnic pride

Bolivia is still one of Latin America’s poorest countries, but its economy has grown rapidly in recent years on the back of high mineral and gas prices, and the government’s pragmatic economic policies. That growth has helped a commercial boom in La Paz and the neighbouring city of El Alto, where Aymara merchants – many of them women – play important and lucrative role.

Bolivia resists global pressure to do away with coca crop

In order “to restore the dignity of the coca leaf”, the Bolivian government launched an international campaign in 2006 to depenalise coca and have it taken off the list of narcotics drawn up by the Vienna convention in 1961. Bolivia has not yet succeeded in convincing the UN, but in 2013 it did obtain a specific clause authorising chewing of coca leaves on its territory. “Bolivia is the only country in the world with a clause of this sort,” says De Leo. Coca cultivation, using traditional methods, is currently allowed on 12,000 hectares.

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Border Crossing in Guatemala

Sarah DeGraff is the Service Learning and Program Coordinator for MCC Guatemala and El Salvador. This blog was originally posted on her personal blog, A Place at the Table

These lovely streams provide a source of running water for the community to use in their homes.

These lovely streams provide a source of running water for the community to use in their homes.

The journey to La Vega de Volcan was two days in duration – an eight hour drive from Guatemala City into the northwestern mountains to the town of Sibinal, where we spent the night, then a 20 minute pickup truck ride out of Sibinal, followed by a four hour hike over the steep hill that separates Sibinal from the small village of La Vega.

Walking down into the verdant valley in which the village is nestled, with trickling streams running through the center amidst boulder-strewn grazing fields, white lilies growing on the banks, I imagine I felt awe and wonder to almost the same degree as those who gain access to Machu Pichu by way of the longer, four-day route, but with one difference: instead of viewing ancient tribal ruins of the dead Inca, these people were the living, breathing remnants of an ancient Maya society.

By no means do I intend to trivialize or romanticize the Maya culture or way of life. Daily life for these Mam people is insufferably difficult: this is a subsistence farming community in which families suffer malnutrition, starvation, few opportunities for economic advancement beyond sending family members to the US or Canada illegally to send back remittances, racism and injustices on the part of the Guatemalan government and latino culture, and lack of education and medical treatment.

The next two days focused on learning about two topics: immigration as it relates to the community, and the various farming projects carried out by our partners. I write two, but truly they are inherently intertwined.

One of our partner staff shared the story of his journey from this tiny village on the border near Chiapas, Mexico, to the US.

“We’re not immigrating because we want the American dream,” he said of himself and his fellow community members, “we’re going because we’re forced to go.” What is the driving force behind illegal immigration here? Hunger. Not just hunger, but starvation and lack of resources to the point of death. Desperation. Currently, 95% of families in La Vega have at least one member in the US who sends back remittances so they can purchase medicine when their children are sick and get a ride on the bus into Sibinal so they can actually make that purchase; to send their kids to school; to have enough to eat each day.

8km to the Mexican border.

8km to the Mexican border.

This isn’t a sustainable solution, however, and can even fly in the face of Mam culture, which dictates that there should be a use for everything one owns. A house with unused rooms, for example, (like our guest bedrooms in North America), or extra clothing that isn’t worn often, is considered negative to a person’s overall health and wellbeing. The point is to have enough, not too little and not too much, in order to live well and be whole as a person, as a family, and as a community.

That being said, the current projects in the community include diversifying crops in small gardens using permaculture techniques and teaching participants why a diet of variety is important for nutrition and how to prepare foods with these new additions. Traditional foods include corn, beans, and squash, but even if one has these in abundance, one can still easily become malnourished.

The project includes training in animal husbandry and trout farming as well. With a total of 25 participant families, the trout project has in the last two years been able to raise its own fingerlings by fertilizing trout eggs by hand from mature, healthy trout specifically selected for this purpose. The trout they sell weighs between five and seven pounds and is sold in markets as far as five hours away.

The garden of a participant family using permaculture techniques learned through the program. Here they have planted radishes, cilantro, and Maya medicinal herbs.

The garden of a participant family using permaculture techniques learned through the program. Here they have planted radishes, cilantro, and Maya medicinal herbs.

On our last day in La Vega we woke up at 4:30 AM and piled into the back of an old pickup truck for a grueling hour up a road so bumpy and rutted it was hardly worthy of the name, to the trail head of the second tallest volcano in Central America – Tacaná. The volcano is dormant and is 4,092 meters above sea level (13,425 ft).

When we made it to the top of the volcano, the fog was still with us, and we had crossed in and out of Mexico several times.  The irony of crossing between borders unhindered and without a passport was not exactly subtle.

It is hard to sum up all of these experiences while I am still learning from them. Living in the capital, I live a life relatively isolated from our partners and from subsistence farming communities. Entering into daily life with them is difficult and eye-opening, and both professionally and personally, doing this helps to remind me why I am here in Guatemala; that the sometimes mundane work I do at the office really does play a part in coming alongside others in order to learn their stories and work with them to affect positive, sustainable change. I remain humbled by these exchanges of knowledge, experiences, and stories and hope to continue to learn from them as I form relationships with the people in these communities.

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