Economic Slowdown Threatens Progress Towards Equality in Latin America

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with her counterparts from Mexico (left), Panama and the United States, during a panel at the Second CEO Summit of the Americas, Friday Apr. 10 in Panama City. Credit: Courtesy of the IDB

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with her counterparts from Mexico (left), Panama and the United States, during a panel at the Second CEO Summit of the Americas, Friday Apr. 10 in Panama City. Credit: Courtesy of the IDB

By Ivet González
PANAMA CITY, Apr 11 2015 (IPS)

Predictions of a sharp slowdown in Latin America’s economic growth this year make it even more necessary for the region’s leaders to make commitments to boost prosperity with equality during the Seventh Summit of the Americas, currently taking place in the Panamanian capital.

In several of the summit’s forums, the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alicia Bárcena, said the regional economy was expected to grow a mere one percent in 2015, after GDP growth amounted to just 1.1 percent in 2014.

The two-day inter-American summit that opened Friday Apr. 10 has once again brought together high-level representatives of the governments of the 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere, with the novel inclusion of Cuban President Raúl Castro making it a historic meeting.

The heads of state and government, and parallel civil society, academic, youth and business forums, are meeting in Panama City to debate the central theme “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas”.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff put an emphasis on a key issue of the economic slowdown: the serious social impact it could have in the world’s most unequal region.

In a panel in the Second CEO Summit of the Americas, also attended by the U.S., Mexican and Panamanian presidents, Rousseff said the region should work hard to keep the large numbers of people pulled up into the middle class by social policies in recent years from falling back into poverty.

According to ECLAC, South America will show the worst economic performance – close to zero growth – compared to 3.2 percent growth in Central America and Mexico and 1.9 percent in the Caribbean.

The president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Luis Alberto Moreno, also warned that the governments must take measures to prevent the economic stagnation from undoing the great achievement of the last decade, when poverty in the region dropped from around 50 percent 15 years ago to less than 30 percent today.

In the panel, U.S. President Barack Obama called on governments in the region to cooperate to create mechanisms towards lifelong education, in order for the hemisphere to continue to grow.

“We have to replace the dynamic of extractivism with a culture of sustainability,” Bárcena said in another panel. In her view, the drop in the rate of growth should drive new social pacts in the region, in order to keep up the efforts to curb inequality.

“Without equitable distribution of wealth, there will be neither growth nor development,” Erick Graell, secretary of Panama’s Central Nacional de Trabajadores trade union confederation, told IPS. He participated in the alternative People’s Summit.

Behind barriers at the University of Panama, 3,000 members of social and labour movements from the Americas are meeting Thursday Apr. 9 to Saturday Apr. 11 in the alternative meeting to the official summit organised by the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Representatives of indigenous communities from Latin America grab a bite to eat outside the People’s Summit, in the University of Panama assembly hall on Friday Apr. 10. The alternative gathering is taking place parallel to the Apr. 10-11 Seventh Summit of the Americas. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

Representatives of indigenous communities from Latin America grab a bite to eat outside the People’s Summit, in the University of Panama assembly hall on Friday Apr. 10. The alternative gathering is taking place parallel to the Apr. 10-11 Seventh Summit of the Americas. Credit: Ivet González/IPS

At the People’s Summit, women and men in colourful traditional indigenous dress walk around the university assembly hall, where social protest chants can be heard and the walls are festooned with posters and phrases of legendary Argentine-Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) and other historic leaders of Latin America’s left.

Participants from Canada and the United States mingle with the predominant racially and culturally diverse South American, Central American and Caribbean crowd at the People’s Summit, attended Friday by Bolivian President Evo Morales, and which expected the participation of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Cuba’s Raúl Castro.

“It has become a tradition that every time the presidents get together in their elite summits, ignoring the country’s development, social movements hold this alternative meeting,” said Graell, with the People’s Summit organising committee.

“We are going to express our concerns about poverty and inequality in the recommendations we send the presidents,” the trade unionist said with respect to the citizen gathering whose first edition was held parallel to the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005.

The alternative forum, whose slogan this year is “A homeland for all, with peace, solidarity, and social justice,” is discussing issues such as human, economic, social and cultural rights, democracy and sovereignty, trade union freedom, migration, indigenous communities, education, social security and pensions.

Investing more in education is key to leaving behind dependence on commodities and to strengthening the knowledge sector and technology, which would guarantee economic and social sustainability, said ECLAC’s Bárcena. At the same time, she said, it is a challenge for governments, given the economic slowdown.

Latin America and the Caribbean must close structural gaps in terms of production, education and income levels to advance towards inclusive and sustainable development, because inequality conspires against the stability of democracies, Bárcena said.

“There is a lack of coordination at the government level to reduce regional disparities,” said Jorge Valdivieso, executive secretary of the Central Obrera Boliviana trade union confederation. “One example of this is that there are borders between our countries and visa requirements. Latin America is one single country,” he told IPS at the People’s Summit.

Salvadoran nurse Idalia Reyes, who is taking part in the alternative summit in representation of the trade union of workers of El Salvador’s social security institute, told IPS that “cooperation can help improve the quality of life of local communities.”

She stressed that several countries, including Brazil, Cuba or Venezuela, have regional cooperation programmes in areas such as scientific research, productivity, post-disaster recovery, health and education, despite their internal limitations.

But she lamented that in the case of the United States, support for countries in the region “comes with so many conditions attached.”

“It has a lot to offer but it should stop always asking for something in exchange,” said the activist who lives in a region – Central America – marked by high levels of violent crime and migration to the United States.

In an attempt to reduce the exodus by bolstering economic growth and security, in November 2014 El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras presented the plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, which the United States is supporting with one billion dollars. It will be added to efforts towards customs and trade integration.

The activist brought to the alternative summit the demand to avoid the privatisation of the pensions of the working class – a phenomenon she said was a growing problem in Central America. “We want mixed, secure pensions, to which the government and workers throughout their working years contribute,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Nepal: A Trailblazer in Biodiversity Conservation

Nepal’s Chitwan National Park has become one of Asia's success stories in wildlife conservation. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Nepal’s Chitwan National Park has become one of Asia’s success stories in wildlife conservation. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

By Naresh Newar
CHITWAN, Nepal, Apr 11 2015 (IPS)

At dusk, when the early evening sun casts its rays over the lush landscape, the Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 200 km south of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is a place of the utmost tranquility.

As a flock of the endangered lesser adjutant stork flies over the historic Narayani River, a left bank tributary of the Ganges in India, this correspondent’s 65-year-old forest guide Jiyana Mahato asks for complete silence: this is the time of day when wild animals gather near the water. Not far away, a swamp deer takes its bath at the river’s edge.

“A lot of our success was due to our close collaboration with local communities who depend on biodiversity conservation for their livelihoods.” — Sher Singh Thagunna, development officer for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC)
“The site of humans drives them away,” explains Mahato, a member of the Tharu indigenous ethnic group who play a key role in supporting the government’s wildlife conservation efforts here.

“We need to return now,” he tells IPS. The evening is not a safe time for humans to be wandering around these parts, especially now that the country’s once-dwindling tiger and rhinoceros populations are on the rise.

Mahato is the ideal guide. He has been around to witness the progress that has been made since the national park was first established in 1963, providing safe haven to 56 species of mammals.

Today, Chitwan is at the forefront of Nepal’s efforts to conserve its unique biodiversity. Earlier this year, it became the first country in the world to implement a new conservation tool, created by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), known as the Conservation Assured | Tiger Standard (CA|TS).

Established to encourage effective management and monitoring of critically endangered species and their habitats, CA|TS has received endorsement from the likes of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Global Tiger Forum, who intend to deploy the tool worldwide as a means of achieving global conservation targets set out in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Experts say that the other 12 Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) should follow Nepal’s example. This South Asian nation of 27 million people had a declining tiger population – just 121 creatures – in 2009, but intense conservation efforts have yielded an increase to 198 wild tigers in 2013, according to the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2014-2020.

Indeed, Nepal is leading the way on numerous conservation fronts, both in the region and worldwide. With 20 protected zones covering over 34,000 square km – or 23 percent of Nepal’s total landmass – it now ranks second in Asia for the percentage of protected surface area relative to land size. Globally it ranks among the world’s top 20 nations with the highest percentage of protected land.

In just eight years, between 2002 and 2010, Nepal added over 6,000 square km to its portfolio of protected territories, which include 10 national parks, three wildlife reserves, one hunting reserve, six conservation areas and over 5,600 hectares of ‘buffer zone’ areas that surround nine of its national parks.

These steps are crucial to maintaining Nepal’s 118 unique ecosystems, as well as endangered species like the one-horned rhinoceros whose numbers have risen from 354 in 2006 to 534 in 2011 according to the CBD.

Collaboration key to conservation

Sher Singh Thagunna, development officer for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), tells IPS, “A lot of our success was due to our close collaboration with local communities who depend on biodiversity conservation for their livelihoods.”

 

Nepal has classified over 34,000 square km – roughly 23 percent of its landmass – into a range of protected areas. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Nepal has classified over 34,000 square km – roughly 23 percent of its landmass – into a range of protected areas. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Those like Mahato, for whom conservation is not an option but a way of life, have partnered with the government on a range of initiatives including efforts to prevent poaching. Some 3,500 youths from local communities have been enlisted in anti-poaching activities throughout the national parks, tasked with patrolling tens of thousands of square km.

Collaborative conservation has taken major strides in the last decade. In 2006, the government passed over management of the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area in eastern Nepal to a local management council, marking the first time a protected area has been placed in the hands of a local committee.

According to Nepal’s latest national biodiversity strategy, by 2012 all of the country’s declared buffer zones, which cover 27 districts and 83 village development committees (VDCs), were being collectively managed by about 700,000 local people organised into 143 ‘buffer zone user committees’ and 4,088 ‘buffer zone user groups’.

Other initiatives, like the implementation of community forestry programmes – which as of 2013 “involved 18,133 forest user groups representing 2.2 million households managing 1.7 million hectares of forestland”, according to the study – have helped turn the tide on deforestation and promote the sustainable use of forest resources by locals.

Since 2004 the department of forests has created 20 collaborative forests spread out over 56,000 hectares in 10 districts of the Terai, a rich belt of marshes and grasslands located on the outer foothills of the Himalayas.

In addition, a leasehold forestry programme rolled out in 39 districts has combined conservation with poverty alleviation, providing a livelihood to over 7,400 poor households by involving them in the sustainable management and harvesting of selected forest-related products, while simultaneously protecting over 42,000 hectares of forested land.

Forest loss and degradation is a major concern for the government, with a 2014 country report to the CBD noting that 55 species of mammals and 149 species of birds – as well as numerous plant varieties – are under threat.

Given that Nepal is home to 3.2 percent of the world’s flora, these trends are worrying, but if the government keeps up its track record of looping locals into conservation efforts, it will soon be able to reverse any negative trends.

Of course, none of these efforts on the ground would be possible without the right attitude at the “top”, experts say.

“There is a high [degree] of political commitment at the top government level,” Ghanashyam Gurung, senior conservation programme director for WWF-Nepal, tells IPS. This, in turn, has created a strong mechanism to curb the menace of poaching.

With security forces now actively involved in the fight against poaching, Nepal is bucking the global trend, defying a powerful, 213-billion-dollar annual industry by going two years without a single reported incident of poaching, DPNWC officials say.

Although other threats remain – including burning issues like an increasing population that suggests an urgent need for better urban planning, as well as the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters like glacial lake outburst floods and landslides that spell danger for its mountain ecosystems – Nepal is blazing a trail that other nations would do well to follow.

“Conservation is a long process and Nepal’s efforts have shown that good planning works […],” Janita Gurung, biodiversity conservation and management specialist for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) tells IPS.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida