Past News Archives
Looking Back 2002 to Look Forward 2003
December 30, 2002
2002 was the year that FAST TRACK passed, also Chile and the United States wrapped up negotiations early this month-- though not without a dose of suspense -- on a bilateral free trade accord, which experts say will give Washington a boost as leader of the hemisphere-wide talks to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The US trade representatives continued making deals, especially once they got FAST TRACK, concluding the Chile agreement in December, working on Singapore (close to done), starting the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) talks, pushing the FTAA, beginning talks in Africa. And keeping the Chile text secret, so that we wouldn't know what was in it. They think they can get away, but they are wrong! The people's movements against the corporate globalization still well alive..
They did hold the FTAA ministerial in Quito - but tens of thousands
did come to protest, and did demand to be heard, Ecuador's indigenous movement,
the best organized in Latin America, they are well organized,
they dare to condemn FTAA, the recent
victory in Presidential election will gives a strong indigenous
presence in future Ecuador's government.
The WTO continued to hold Mini-Ministerials, but protesters continued to find them around the world. In Mexico more than 2,000 peasant farmers staged a protest recently in the capital to demand a freeze on the agricultural provisions of the NAFTA, which they blame for most of their economic and social woes. In Argentina, hundreds of thousands of people held a peaceful march on December 20, to demand changes in the country's economic policy and political leadership, a year after the massive protests that toppled the government of Fernando de la Rúa.
The WTO staff is still protesting their working conditions in Geneva (and that slows things down!). The GATS process went ahead, with areas to be opened to more "trade liberalization" expanding, but protests and popular education expanding too. A Brief Look toward 2003, there will be many things happening in the area of trade in 2003 - a brief calendar
Why we protest? because--sadly, the human rights and economic situation in many central and south American countries are getting worse. According from Amnesty International, Guatemala's human rights condition has deteriorated alarmingly over 2002, Amnesty International said today, referring to a string of human rights violations and the apparent inability of the justice system to respond to them, not least because of the victimization of legal personnel working on human rights cases.
While US is playing war drum against 'terrorists' and 'Iraq' in the Gulf region and southwestern Asia, another form of terrorisms--economy collapse, poverty, hungers, child labor, kidnaping. American corporations stealing oil from areas where Bolivian's unique ecosystems and indigenous communities lives; they funding "Plan Colombia" to support right-wing/military regimes in Bogota to fight FARC rebels, resulting thousands of deaths, for the benefits of US oil corporations; and they repeatedly behind Venezuela's business and military circle to launch coup against President Hugo Chavez, is no doubt a grave violations of economic and social rights in south and central Americas!
So, what is the future? Brazil's popularly-elect President Lula da Silva has
raised expectations of a new kind of leadership in the region, and he could
offer more social and political equality for the poors. In 2003, which is approaching
with the sound of war drums over Iraq, Latin America will seek
a common voice in the United Nations Security Council with the admission
of Chile as a rotating member, to increase their voices and fight for their
rights in this changing World.
(with some quotes from: CWA, Inter Press News, Amnesty International, IMC and Assoicated Press News Wires)
1) A Brief Look toward 2003 (Communications Workers of America)
2) Coffee Price Collapse Pushes Growers into Poverty (IPS)
3) Unstoppable Poverty (IPS)
4) 8.6 Million Central Americans Face Hunger (Tierramérica)
5) Every Day More Children Go to Work (IPS)
6) Poverty Fuels Trafficking of Children (IPS)
7) Grave Violations of Economic and Social Rights (IPS)
8) Lula's Tour - Preparing for New Regional Leadership Role (IPS)
9) Common Voice in UN Security Council (IPS)
Free Trade Areas of Americas:
1) New Accord a Boon to US Leadership in FTAA (IPS)
2) NAFTA Equals Death, Say Peasant Farmers (IPS)
3) Huge Demonstration in Argentina Demands Political, Economic Change (IPS)
4) Anti-FTAA Sentiment, Protests at Presidential Summit (IPS)
A Brief Look toward 2003
There will be many things happening in the area of trade in 2003 - this is a brief calendar:
January 1 - Lula takes office in Brazil, Gutierrez takes office in Uruguay, and both have urged changes in the FTAA process.
January 7 - Talks begin on CAFTA (with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) one purpose is to pressure FTAA negotiators.
January 22-26 - World Social Forum - Porto Alegre Brazil. This is your last chance in the Western Hemisphere; the following World Social Forum (which counters the World Economic Forum's meeting of business and government leaders) will be in India. Many seminars, plenaries, and opportunities for meeting up with people fighting the GATS and FTAA!
February 9th - GATS Demos in Europe
March 13th - GATS Demos go worldwide. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (part of the WTO, World Trade Organization) process has a deadline of March 31st for responses from Countries on what Services they will agree to open to trade. With almost no way to stop the process of privatization once it starts, it is essential to get involved in GATS, even if it seems far away.
March 31st - GATS Offer Deadline. Each country to respond on what they will allow other countries' companies to do in their country.
September 10-14 - WTO Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico. Having had the "Battle in Seattle" in 1999 the WTO in 2001 moved to Doha, Qatar in 2001 (where protest and dissent were not allowed). The WTO is moving to a much closer and friendlier place in September. Cancun! Plans are well underway.
November - Miami - FTAA Ministerial. The date is not set; the place is,
the FTAA Ministerial will take place in Miami, Florida. Groups in the area
are building listserves and getting ready for the opportunity to hold workshops,
educate the public and maybe take to the streets, when the FTAA comes to
SANTIAGO, Apr 11 (IPS) - The coffee sector in several Latin American and Caribbean countries has entered an unprecedented crisis, with negative repercussions for economic performance, balance of payments, employment and income, say new reports by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The countries hardest hit by the plunging international coffee prices are Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, according to ECLAC, a regional agency of the United Nations, based in Santiago.
The reference price of coffee on the New York exchange last year did not surpass 50 cents on the dollar per pound, its lowest real-term price in the last 50 years.
An indicator of the seriousness of the crisis is that it prompted the Association of Coffee-Producing Countries, founded in 1993, to shut its doors recently. It led a failed attempt last year to shore up prices by asking its 15 members - including Brazil and Colombia - to withhold 20 percent of production from the international market.
The endeavour failed because the poorer coffee-producing countries continued to step up production to keep their economies afloat, leading the few countries that were complying with the ACPC request to stop withholding their output.
ECLAC drew up two studies on the impacts of the price decline, one on the situation in Central America and the other dedicated exclusively to Colombia, which in the 2000-2001 coffee season was replaced by Vietnam as the world's second leading producer of the bean.
Colombia gave up its spot as a result of low international prices, climate factors and the rise in production by Brazil, which heads the list of coffee producers, though it, too, is suffering the consequences of deteriorating global coffee prices.
"In 2001, world coffee production outran global consumption, which rose just one percent," says ECLAC.
Last year saw an over-supply of 10 million 60-kilo sacks of coffee on the market, while export volumes reached a record- setting 88.7 million sacks.
As a result, coffee reserves in importing countries totalled around 25.5 million sacks, "almost three times the level compatible with good prices," says the UN agency.
The Central American countries lost 713 million dollars in 2001 alone in coffee revenues, representing 1.2 percent of the region's gross domestic product (GDP) for that year, according to the report by ECLAC experts at the agency's sub-regional office in Mexico.
The coffee industry accounts for 1.3 percent of GDP in Costa Rica, 2.5 percent in El Salvador, 4.2 percent in Guatemala, 7.2 percent in Nicaragua and 8.2 percent in Honduras.
The role of coffee in the Central American economies means that the price crisis has a significant impact, including consequences for all activities related to coffee production, such as commerce, transport, and storage, and the financial system.
"At the macroeconomic level, all this translated into lower state revenues, which on occasion triggered cutbacks in public spending," says the Central American report.
In the coffee-growing zones of the isthmus, the 300,000 coffee producers attempted to reduce costs by altering some traditional practices, reducing wages and dealing in payments in kind. Many coffee plantations have been abandoned or neglected.
The ECLAC study estimates that, in 2001, approximately 170,000 jobs-per-year in coffee farming were lost and 140 million dollars in wages were not received.
"Unemployment in the coffee sector, combined with lower wages, affected some 1.6 million people from the population strata suffering the worst poverty levels," according to the authors of the report.
In Colombia, meanwhile, more than 500,000 families depend on coffee production for their livelihood, but have suffered an intensification of impoverishment during the last decade.
Economist Luz Amparo Fonseca, author of the report on the coffee sector in Colombia, says that coffee-related activities in the South American country currently are going through a structural crisis, leading to "extremely worrisome" social conditions.
Coffee production represents 2 percent of Colombia's total GDP and 22 percent of its agricultural GDP, and continues to be a significant source of job creation.
In that country, 95 percent of coffee-growing operations are small-scale, and cover 60 percent of the area cultivated with the bean. The rest are agribusiness-type producers, responsible for 40 percent of coffee output, by area.
Fonseca found that from 1997 to 2000, unemployment in coffee- producing regions increased by 7.8 percent, compared to the 5.7- percent rise in the rest of the Colombia.
"Losses to the coffee industry in 2001 affected the general economy by the equivalent of 257,000 jobs per year, of which 181,000 were jobs directly within the coffee sector," according to her report.
One of the Colombian coffee industry's greatest problems lies in the fact that its production costs remain high.
For Colombian coffee to be viable on the international market, prices must be within the range of 87 to 92 cents on the dollar per pound, but last year the price was just 60 to 70 cents per pound.
The world market recognises the premium quality of Colombian coffee, thus lifting its prices above the bean exported by Central America and Brazil, but it still falls short of keeping up with production costs in that country.
According to the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), an intergovernmental body representing coffee exporting and importing countries, the bean is one of the top traded commodities and is produced in more than 60 countries, providing a livelihood for some 100 million people.
Many of these countries are heavily dependent on coffee, which can account
for more 80 percent of their total export earnings, says the ICO.
SANTIAGO, Nov 8 (IPS) - Poverty has persisted in Latin America and now affects 221 million people, according to the Social Panorama report the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) released here this week.
In the 1997-2001 period, there was little or no improvement in the population's standard of living, and the number of poor in the region grew by more than 10 million.
Poverty now affects nearly 43 percent of the region's more than 500 million inhabitants, says the study.
The Santiago-based ECLAC says the country that contributed most to the deterioration of the overall Latin American situation was Argentina, where crisis triggered rapid expansion of poverty -- by 5.6 points -- in the period studied.
"It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Latin American population has seen itself affected again by this 'lost half- decade'," says ECLAC, referring to the contagion of the crisis that emerged in Southeast Asia in 1997.
The 1980s, dubbed the "lost decade" of Latin America, were characterised by the foreign debt crisis, which brought the region's economy to its knees.
ECLAC executive secretary José Antonio Ocampo said that in the last five years "poverty reduction slowed and the number of poor has begun to rise," to the point that seven million people have fallen into poverty this year alone.
The United Nations regional agency's projections for the end of this year indicate that the poor populations will increase in Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay, reaching 44 percent overall.
Ocampo noted, however, that the problem afflicting Latin America lies in poverty, and not in indigence.
The Colombian-born economist said that no country had achieved in 2000 the aggressive goal of reducing poverty by a considerable amount. Only Chile, Uruguay and Panama had made notable progress by that time, while on the other extreme were Ecuador, Honduras and Paraguay.
The panorama grew complicated over the last two years as a result of the severe economic crisis afflicting the region.
"To achieve the goals of the UN Millennium Summit in terms of poverty reduction there must exist economic growth and income redistribution towards the poorer sectors," said the ECLAC chief.
At the Millennium Summit, which took place at the UN in September 2000, the world's governments pledged to reduce global poverty by half over the next 15 years.
The Social Panorama of Latin America 2001-2002 also states that "more sluggish economies and more volatile growth caused unemployment to rise and hampered progress or even brought regression in income distribution," pushing poverty rights up.
Latin America suffers the greatest gap between rich and poor in the world, but ECLAC suggests that "progressive redistribution of income" would allow economic growth to quickly improve the poorest population's living standard and achieve poverty reduction goals.
As such, ECLAC stresses the need implement economic and social policies that serve to reinforce potential expansion of the productive base.
Ocampo underscored that governments must recognise that overcoming the poverty problem will not occur through gross domestic product (GDP) growth alone, but must also entail a better distribution of the resources obtained.
In its report, the UN regional agency urges governments "to take advantage of the relatively slim margin for action that they have to encourage improved income distribution, if they seek to improve the living standards of the poorest sectors more quickly and thus meet the goal of cutting their numbers by half by 2015."
The text also suggests that the number of people in region trained in high-tech areas is not enough to confront the demands of rapid restructuring of the productive sector and of technological changes.
Although an important rise in the educated population has been observed, it is still limited to 10 to 20 percent of all workers.
Of note is the increased education level of women, which is rising faster than that of men, contributing towards narrowing the gender gap in wages, said Ocampo.
But there is also evidence of the labour sector's inability to absorb a larger supply of human resources with technical or professional training.
Unemployment among persons with higher education and training marks another form of under-utilisation of human resources in the region, says the text.
The deterioration of the Latin American social panorama is also evident in education, as 37 percent of the region's adolescents drop out of school.
In most countries, the highest dropout rates occur in the first year of middle school, a phenomenon that is largely concentrated among low-income students and reinforces the cycle of social inequalities, says ECLAC.
Economic hardships, employment or job searches are the main reasons young people say they leave school. For adolescent women, household responsibilities, pregnancy and motherhood are additional factors.
Honduras and Guatemala suffer the highest rates of urban school dropouts,
while the lowest are recorded in Bolivia and Chile.
SAN JOSE, Sep 30 (IPS) - Some 8.6 million people in Central America suffer food insecurity and some degree of hunger, says a new report by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
Those affected are the poorest populations that live in the region's "drought corridor", a horseshoe-shaped band that runs through part of southern Guatemala, northwest Nicaragua and the south of Honduras and El Salvador, according to the WFP study.
"It is a very critical situation," Olga Moraga, the WFP spokeswoman for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Tierramérica.
The report is the result of a survey conducted by WFP experts, government personnel and staff from other UN agencies in 122 rural communities within the drought corridor.
The 8.6 million Central Americans -- around 24 percent of the total regional population of 36 million -- suffer food shortages due mostly to the natural disasters that have thrashed the isthmus during the last decade.
The series of extreme droughts alternating with floods leaves the eroded agricultural areas increasingly vulnerable to crop failure.
In 1996 and 1997, the region experienced drought, then the next year Hurricane Mitch wrought further devastation through massive flooding.
The drought returned in 1999 and has since undermined the subsistence economy of thousands of peasant farming families dedicated to monoculture of maize, beans or coffee.
"Since Mitch, we haven't been able to achieve even a minimum output," says Rubén Castellanos, 47, resident of the village of El Barro in the southern Honduran department of El Paraíso.
Honduras bore the brunt of that storm, suffering 14,000 deaths, two million people left homeless and a 20-year reversal in national economic development.
In many neighbouring municipalities, the corn and bean fields of the year's second growing season are drying up due to lack of rain, Castellanos told Tierramérica.
"We planted in September to harvest in December, but we are extremely worried because it hasn't rained," he said.
Like him, the 800 residents of El Barro and their neighbours in surrounding communities are enduring the perverse cycle of lack of rain, loss of crops and deepening of hunger.
The regions hardest hit are also the least developed. They are further characterised by widespread deforestation and the depletion of alternative water resources.
Because of the drought the grain crops have failed, "and now Honduras has to import 500 million dollars worth of agricultural products," said Marvin Ponce, of the local Coordinating Council of Peasant Organisations.
In Nicaragua, nearly 30 children have died of hunger-related causes so far this year and another 8,000 are severely malnourished, say local health authorities.
The main problem is the crisis plaguing Nicaraguan coffee- growers, as they are unable to pay off their debts because of record low world prices for the commodity, in addition to the drought.
The lack of rain has made it impossible to harvest staple crops like beans and corn in the northern part of the country.
More than 85 percent of the families in the drought corridor have been hit by a succession of natural disasters in the last 10 years, which has affected their work, reduced income and caused livestock to die, prompting many to leave, says the WFP report.
Just 36 percent of the families in the drought area own the land they farm, and only 23 percent have their ownership papers in order, indicates the survey conducted of 18,000 families.
The study also reveals that 70 percent of the communities lack medical
centres, 37 percent of the adults are illiterate and 31 percent have only
a third-grade education. The landless families are the most vulnerable to
the hunger problem. All told, these groups make up 52.5 percent of the population
of the "drought corridor".
SAN JOSE/LIMA, May 6 (IPS) - An estimated 17.4 million children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean must work in order to help feed their families or to survive on their own, says the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
A new ILO report released Monday, "A Future without Child Labour", states that less than 50 percent of child workers complete primary education, and less than 20 percent finish high school. The vast majority lack any possibility of continuing education at the university level.
The international community has engaged in an intense campaign, promoted by the ILO, to eliminate child labour, an effort that began in earnest in 1989 with the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
According to the ILO, child labour is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. The existence of child labour perpetuates poverty across generations, slowing economic growth and social development.
The Geneva-based ILO released its global report on child labour simultaneously Monday in several cities around the world, including Lima and San José, as part of its follow-up on the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
In Latin America, 50 percent of the boys and girls who are employed work in the agricultural sector.
On the South American continent, the country with the highest proportion of minors in the labour force is Paraguay, with nearly 40 percent of children under 15 working, while the lowest rate is in Chile, where just 1.9 percent of children work.
Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru share the second worst record, with 20 percent of their children having jobs, while in the rest of the South American countries the rate ranges from eight to 14 percent of children under 15 in the labour market.
The ILO report states that 246 million children ages five to 17 work worldwide, including 179 million who are engaged in tasks that are dangerous to their physical, mental or moral well-being.
"In other words, one in every eight children in the world are exploited in the worst forms of child labour," said ILO director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Agustín Muñoz in Lima.
In Central America and the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, a total of approximately 2.4 million children under age 15 work, which is an offence against their right to education and recreation, said the ILO representatives Monday in the Costa Rican capital.
In six Central American countries and in the Dominican Republic there is more than one child worker for every five children under 15.
Children's rights activists gathered in San José to express their concern about the situation in Central America and urged the region's governments to take immediate and concrete action to halt child labour, which has seen a dramatic increase since 1993, when the total was 1.5 million girls and boys.
The Central American governments are concerned about the magnitude of the phenomenon, but "it is no secret that child labour represents a complex problem," said ILO director for Central America and the Dominican Republic, Enrique Bru, a Uruguayan national.
Several international conventions define child labour as work performed by minors under age 15 - who in Central America number more than 12.7 million - and as an offence against children's and adolescents' right to education and recreation.
In six countries of Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama) and the Dominican Republic, the ILO calculates that 2,456,902 children hold a job, said Bru.
The figure is based on preliminary studies that are still under way in the region. Belize, although located in Central America, is not included in the research.
The numbers announced Monday show a marked difference with the ILO's estimates of nearly a decade ago, in 1993, when it estimated there were 1.5 million children working in those countries.
"We do not know if this change represents a considerable increase or if we have improved our counting systems," said Carmen Moreno, an expert from Spain who is the regional coordinator of the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).
"The Central American country that causes greatest concern is Guatemala," said Moreno. There, 23 percent of the children, or 937,321 boys and girls, have a job.
Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the United Nations. In the last few years, its 12 million inhabitants - and the children in particular - have suffered the consequences of drought and hunger, on top of social inequalities.
Farming, handling toxins, manufacturing fireworks, scavenging in garbage dumps, work in construction, fishing and markets, and victims of the sex trade are the areas in which most child workers can be found in Central America and the Dominican Republic, according to the ILO.
These sectors subject girls and boys to conditions that are very dangerous.
"Undoubtedly, the major employer of children is agriculture. The bad part of farming is not the work itself, but rather the difficult conditions the children face and the long workdays," said Moreno.
After Guatemala, Honduras has the highest incidence of child labour in Central America, with 484,305 minors working (21 percent of the population under age 15).
Next comes the Dominican Republic, with 470,436 child workers (18.9 percent); El Salvador, 185,283 (17 percent), Nicaragua, 182,333 (13 percent), Costa Rica, 147,087 (15.4 percent), and Panama, with 50,137 child workers (6.6 percent).
"Hearing those figures is like being hit by a heavy blow," said the Children's Defender (Ombudsman) of Costa Rica, Mario Víquez. In many cases, he pointed out, child workers not only work extensive hours, but they also suffer discrimination in wages.
According to the Children's Defence Office of Costa Rica, working minors aged five to 12 receive just 12 percent of the minimum wage, those aged 12 to 15 receive 27 percent, and those 15 to 17 receive 47 percent of the minimum wage.
ILO Convention 138, adopted in 1973, establishes 15 as the minimum working age (14 in Latin America), and Convention 182 bans what it defines as "the worst forms of child labour". All Central American countries have ratified both conventions or are in the process of doing so.
Central America's major challenge is to implement the laws and take concrete actions to guarantee children their rights to education, recreation and development, said Costa Rican children's rights official Alberto Quiñones.
Meanwhile, 10 countries of South America - in addition to making the commitment to progressively eliminate child labour - have agreed to take part in IPEC, an alliance of more than 90 donor and recipient countries.
The ILO's definitions of child labour take into account local and cultural circumstances, as well as the desire of parents to contribute to the training and education of their children, allowing them to carry out certain types of work that the ILO considers admissible.
"Millions of children around the world perform legitimate work, remunerated or not, that are appropriate to age and level of maturity. By working they learn to take on responsibility, acquire training and help their families," Muñoz said.
However, working minors too often suffer abuse and dangerous working conditions, he admitted.
SAN JOSE, Aug 16 (IPS) - The dismantling of a smuggling ring that trafficked children from El Salvador to reunite them with their undocumented immigrant parents in the United States has once again drawn attention to the phenomenon of the trafficking of minors in Central America.
The U.S. immigration service reported the break-up this month of a ring headed by a Salvadoran citizen, Berta Rosa Campos, who smuggled scores of children from El Salvador to the United States in dangerous clandestine journeys that exposed the minors to a number of risks.
Campos, 65, offered her services to undocumented Central American immigrants in the United States, who paid her large sums to smuggle in their children from their home countries.
Given the difficulties of travelling to their countries of origin and re-entering the United States without papers, undocumented immigrants are usually unable to return home for their children. The traffickers preyed on the parents' desperation to see their sons and daughters again.
Ten people have been arrested in El Salvador and the United States. The Salvadoran police are also preparing new raids to be carried out over the next few weeks, aimed at capturing other members of the ring, which may have involved as many as 20 people of various nationalities.
The alleged child smugglers under arrest in the United States face up to 10 years in prison and fines of 25,000 dollars.
''This is just another of the traumatic faces of migration, which pushes thousands of poor people to set out in search of the 'American dream','' Ana Salvadó, the director of programmes at Casa Alianza - the Latin American branch of the New York-based child advocacy organisation Covenant House - told IPS.
''In Central America, we have noted an increase in trafficking in children over the past three years,'' for a number of purposes, ranging from the theft of minors for the sale of organs to commercial sexual exploitation of children, said Salvadó, whose institution was awarded the prestigious Conrad Hilton human rights prize in 2000.
In Guatemala, Interpol is searching for around 300 Honduran girls who were reportedly forced into prostitution - just a tiny portion of the 15,000 minors who are trafficked for the sex trade in the region, according to unofficial estimates.
Traffickers purportedly smuggle the girls along a corridor that runs from the Honduran cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula to Guatemala, and from there to Mexico, the United States and Canada, according to activists working for the rights of children.
The phenomenon is growing, a consequence of the dire poverty that drives adults to violate the rights of children, the activist told IPS.
Around 60 percent of Central America's 37 million people - or 22 million people - are living in poverty, reports an as yet unpublished study by the inter-governmental Central American Commission on the Environment and Development, to which IPS had access.
The new report underlines that unemployment affects 10 percent of the economically active population in the region, and that nearly one-third of Central Americans over the age of 15 are illiterate.
This panorama of social exclusion and marginalisation fuels the emergence of organised crime rings that feed on children, say experts.
Although no official figures are available, the trafficking of minors is a lucrative racket that lines the pockets of middlemen, pedophiles and pimps in the region.
''The smuggling of children is one of the most profitable illegal businesses in Central America,'' Celia Medrano, the coordinator of the Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in Central America, told IPS.
''We believe state officials from several countries must be involved, because
it is just not possible for children to be trafficked without the authorities
being aware of it,'' she added.
SAN JOSE, Nov 28 (IPS) - A majority of the people of Central America suffer grave violations of their economic, social and cultural rights, which is creating a culture medium for rising crime and social unrest, warned experts consulted by IPS.
A large part of Central America's 36 million people lack access to an adequate diet, health care, education and decent housing.
A report by the Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA) points out that 80 percent of the region's wealth is concentrated among the richest 30 percent of the population, while the poorest 30 percent makes do with less than five percent of the wealth.
The widest income gap is found in Guatemala, where the poorest 10 percent of the population -- mainly indigenous people -- receives just 0.6 percent of national income.
In Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, up to 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to human rights groups.
''We are creating a timebomb,'' Guatemalan sociologist Byron Barillas, who studies the deterioration of the social fabric in the region, told IPS.
''The most heavily violated rights in Central America are those that guarantee people's survival. Those rights are being limited, and we are condemning many people to death,'' said Barillas, who stated that the neoliberal economic system and highly uneven distribution of wealth were at the roots of the problem.
Economic, social and cultural rights have little visibility, and are frequently violated by states in the region.
Basic human, civil and political rights -- such as the right to life, freedom from discrimination, slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest, and the right to a fair and public trial -- which received an enormous boost internationally after World War II (1939-1945), are known as the ''first generation'' rights.
Economic, social and cultural -- or ''second generation'' -- rights were later defined by the international community.
To these have been added the ''third generation'' or ''solidarity'' rights, such as the right to political, economic, social, and cultural self-determination, the right to economic and social development, the right to peace, the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, and the right to humanitarian disaster relief.
''In Central America, the social deficit has, ironically, deepened in times of peace,'' Salvadoran sociologist Luis Vidal Bonilla commented to IPS.
Over the past three decades, the region has suffered several bloody armed conflicts, including a 36-year civil war in Guatemala that claimed 200,000 lives by the time a peace deal was signed in 1996.
But after the civil conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala and the revolution and ''contra'' war in Nicaragua came to an end, a ''new layer of poverty'' emerged in Central America, made up of thousands of unemployed young people and millions of impoverished victims of natural catastrophes, said Bonilla.
That new ''layer'' of poor was swollen by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in late 1998 and the earthquakes that hit El Salvador in 2001.
''These natural phenomena revealed the fragility of the social system and of the states in terms of protecting the social, economic and cultural rights of their people,'' added Bonilla.
According to the CODEHUCA study, poverty-related statistics in the region are ''alarming'': 39 percent of Nicaraguans have no clean water; 60 percent of Salvadorans lack access to social security and other benefits; and 27 percent of Guatemalan children are malnourished.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of working poor live in slums and shantytowns, unable to afford decent housing due to the low wages they earn.
The highest minimum wage in the region is 175 dollars a month, in Costa Rica, while the lowest is just 33 dollars a month, in Nicaragua.
''Economic, social and cultural rights exist or disappear depending on the market. If you have no link with the market, you unfortunately lose those rights,'' Dutch economist Win Dierckxsens told IPS.
Dierckxsens, who lived in Central America for several years studying the characteristics of poverty, believes the economic system is bringing about a gradual loss of rights. ''Hard-core neoliberalism is giving rise to neo-fascism. We must get the states to reassume their obligations to their peoples,'' he said.
For his part, Salvadoran researcher Ricardo Sol said the deterioration of those rights was creating a ''culture medium'' for social collapse, rising crime and misgovernment.
Another aspect underlined by the analysts is the marked disparity between countries in the region.
The only Central American nation included in the category of high human development by the Human Development Report 2002 is Costa Rica, which ranks 43rd out of 173 countries.
The rest are given medium development rankings. Panama is number 57, Belize 58, El Salvador 104, Honduras 116, Nicaragua 118 and Guatemala 120.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report underlines that Costa Rica heads the region, for example, in terms of telephony, with 101 lines for every 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 21 in Guatemala, 17 in Honduras, and 13 in Nicaragua.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 12 (IPS) - Brazil's president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has raised expectations of a new kind of leadership in the region, capable of reinvigorating relations between countries in the Americas on more equitable, just foundations.
Lula's visits to four countries -- Argentina, Chile, the United States and Mexico -- drew positive reactions and awakened unexpected hopes of renewed cooperation, despite the big question mark hanging over the future policies of the leftist former steelworker who takes office Jan 1 amidst severe economic troubles in Latin America's largest country.
In Mexico, the last stop of his tour, Lula and Mexican President Vicente Fox discussed ways to bolster bilateral trade and combat the agricultural protectionism practiced by industrialised nations. ''We must export more, to promote growth'' of our countries, said the president-elect.
He also met Wednesday in Mexico with the head of the centre- left Party of the Democratic Revolution, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who he referred to as an ''old compañero.''
But the main course was his visit to Washington Tuesday. Lula's meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush inaugurated a new stage in Brazil's relations with the United States, according to the president-elect.
Bush's suggestion of a meeting between the two presidents in the second quarter of 2003 to launch a common agenda opens a political dialogue that was seen as virtually inconceivable under the current circumstances, given the White House's absorption in the ''war on terrorism'' and pressing problems in the Middle East and other regions.
Analysts said Bush's proposal for a meeting seemed to indicate a new stance towards Brazil on the part of Washington, in contrast to the chill of recent years. Bush and Lula are to get together somewhere in Brazil, at Bush's request, despite the U.S. president's well-known aversion to travelling abroad.
Brazil and the United States have frequently clashed over the talks for the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), trade disputes, and discrepancies over questions like the U.S. military presence in the fight against drug trafficking in Colombia and Washington's four-decade economic blockade against Cuba.
That gives rise to expectations for an even greater distance between the conservative Republican Bush and the left-wing Lula, the leader of the Workers' Party (PT), which was born 22 years ago flying the banners of nationalism, anti-imperialism, social revolution, and admiration for Fidel Castro's communist Cuba.
But Lula took a pragmatic stance in the campaign that led to his landslide victory on Oct 27, and has continued to tone down his rhetoric as he prepares to govern, especially with respect to his future foreign policy.
The president-elect has repeatedly given his assurances that he will honour Brazil's international obligations, such as an agreement signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which will restrict his government's economic maneuvering room during the first year of his term.
His team of advisers also cleared up many of the doubts and worries plaguing investors, thus averting even worse financial turmoil.
''Frank and direct'' dialogue between presidents can help foster relations of mutual respect and benefit, by acknowledging common interests and differences in levels of development, said Lula.
He also reiterated that bilateral and regional relations must not be limited to trade, and that Brazil wants to ''deepen'' development aid and cooperation to strengthen democracy, peace, and efforts against organised crime and poverty in all countries of the Americas.
Lula's travels abroad, which began in Argentina and Chile last week, reflected his diplomatic priorities, the first of which is to strengthen the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc through strategic integration that goes ''beyond trade,'' based on European Union-style common policies, which should eventually be extended to all of South America.
Lula has earned the backing of many Argentinians, who are placing their hopes on Brazil for effective support in overcoming Argentina's economic and social collapse.
Argentina's recovery is necessary for the reconstruction of the Mercosur, South America's leading free trade pact, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and associate members Bolivia and Chile.
If Brazil intends to reinforce the bloc, it will have to make concessions to its partners, especially Argentina, to help it recover, Tullo Vigévani, a professor of international relations at the State University of Sao Paulo, told IPS.
''Embracing the regional cause'' will be Lula's route to success given the formidable internal challenges that his government will face, like rising inflation, the devaluation of the local currency, high unemployment, and the president-elect's commitment to reducing poverty, according to economist Paulo Rabello de Castro.
Assuming a leadership role and focusing on ''action based on solidarity'' in South America will help Brazil revive its economy, if it is also able to expand trade within the region and attract more of the capital currently available in the world as a result of the recession plaguing the world's leading economies, argued Rabello de Castro in an article published in Wednesday's edition of the daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
With respect to drawing investment, the analyst pointed to the Initiative for Regional South American Infrastructure, promoted by the outgoing Brazilian government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, which selected 160 transportation, energy and communication projects that will boost physical integration in South America.
Argentina is Brazil's biggest foreign policy problem, due to the effect of that country's crisis on the cost of external debt, which explains the need for Brazil to assist its Mercosur partner, as well as the fact that it was Lula's first stop as president- elect.
Rabello de Castro said Chile was his second destination because the country's
international prestige is vital to fostering cooperation within South America.
SANTIAGO, Dec 30 (IPS) - In 2003, which is approaching with the sound of war drums over Iraq, Latin America will seek a common voice in the United Nations Security Council with the admission of Chile as a rotating member, after Colombia's controversial performance.
This month, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said he hoped Chile would represent, alongside Mexico, Latin America's positions in the Security Council, the most powerful United Nations body.
Chile replaces Colombia on Jan 1 as one of the Council's 10 non- permanent members for a period of two years, accompanying Mexico, the region's other representative, whose term ends Dec 31, 2003.
The 10 rotating members form a kind of second category of nations in the Council, on which the five permanent members -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- enjoy the right to veto any decision.
Crucial Security Council resolutions are expected in January regarding the U.S. and British insistence on a collective military strike against the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq on the argument that it continues to produce and stockpile weapons of mass destruction.
A majority of international observers say Washington is determined to attack Iraq even though the reports of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) inspectors have not totally backed the accusations against the Hussein regime.
After Washington's fruitless attempts to capture Osama bin Laden and dismantle his Al-Qaida terrorist network, Iraq has become the chief target of the U.S. government of George W. Bush in its offensive against the ''axis of evil'', a crusade that has contributed greatly to the president's popularity.
Bush has successfully lined up the United Nations behind his global ''war on terrorism,'' and has pushed tough resolutions on Iraq through the Security Council. But he has failed to obtain a blank check from the five permanent members in support of his war plans.
This year is also coming to an end with discrepancies between Russia and the United States on the latest weapons declaration Iraq turned over to the UNMOVIC inspectors, which according to Washington and London violated UN Security Council resolution 1441, while Moscow disagreed.
The Washington-Baghdad conflict is taking shape in the midst of a scenario of information and misinformation, which has set the stage for moves and resolutions on the diplomatic front, especially in the UN Security Council.
Early this month, Colombian ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso, the current president of the Council, first turned a copy of Iraq's weapons declaration over to the United States, which then distributed it among the other members of the Council. The manuevre came in for heavy criticism in the United Nations and elsewhere.
Colombia acted as ''a flunkey and yes-man,'' wrote former Colombian interior minister Carlos Lemos, who pointed out that even the phlegmatic UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan severely rebuked Valdivieso.
The Washington Post newspaper said the other four permanent members of the Council ''acquiesced to the U.S. move,'' and that the version of the report distributed to the 10 rotating members was heavily edited.
Le Monde in France said the United States ''stole'' the right to be the first to see the weapons declaration, in a ''sneak attack'' that had the complicity of the permanent members of the Council and of Colombia, the ''third biggest beneficiary of U.S. aid.''
''What happened gives rise to the fear that, because of Plan Colombia, the country is already beginning to confuse cooperation with the United States with servile kow-towing,'' former minister Lemos wrote in the Bogota daily El Tiempo.
Since 1998, the United States has poured around two billion dollars in military assistance into Plan Colombia, an anti-drug initiative launched by then-president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and continued by the current government of Alvaro Uribe.
Plan Colombia has a total cost of 7.5 billion dollars, four billion of which are to come from the national budget, 1.3 billion from the United States, and the rest from the European Union and other donors.
In sharp contrast with the position taken by Colombia in the Council, Mexico joined Russia, China and France in opposing the inclusion of permission for the automatic use of force against Iraq in the resolution on that country -- a stance that somewhat chilled relations between the Mexican government of Vicente Fox and Washington.
Mexican ambassador Adolfo Aguilar said in November that his country had confidence in the work of the UN inspectors.
He also stated that all Security Council action must be based on ''two clearly differentiated foundations,'' the first of which was ''a reliable process of evaluation of Iraq's true military capacity, as well as its intentions to use those weapons or the ability of terrorist groups to gain access to them.''
The second requirement is ''agreement in the Security Council and among other concerned states on the measures that should be adopted in case the evaluation process detects a threat to international peace and security,'' said Aguilar.
''Any decision on Iraq should have the legitimacy of the United Nations,'' Lagos said on Dec 19 when fielding questions by foreign correspondents on the role Chile will play from Jan 1, 2003 to Dec 31, 2004 as a rotating member of the Security Council.
Mexico and Chile should be Latin America's mouthpieces on the Security Council, and to that end, mechanisms for ongoing consultations with the rest of the governments in the region should be put in place, said Lagos.
In the Dec 6 summit of South America's Mercosur trade bloc in Brasilia, Lagos offered Chile as the subregional bloc's ''official voice'' in the United Nations on security and political issues.
Chile and Bolivia are associate members of Mercosur (Southern Common Market),
which was created in 1991 by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
News Release Issued by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International
AI-index: AMR 34/087/2002
The human rights situation in Guatemala has deteriorated alarmingly over 2002, Amnesty International said today, referring to a string of human rights violations and the apparent inability of the justice system to respond to them, not least because of the victimization of legal personnel working on human rights cases.
In the past few weeks, Guatemala has witnessed a wave of abuses which are symptomatic of the pattern of continuing threats, intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders and members of the legal community involved in efforts to combat impunity or implement key aspects of the Peace Accords. Journalists reporting on human rights cases or on allegations of official corruption, and church figures and indigenous leaders supporting peasant farmers seeking to secure land rights and adequate living conditions, are also under attack.
The most recent include a gun shot attack on 5 December against Attorney General Carlos David Argueta De León, who has been investigating both high profile human rights cases and alleged official involvement in organised crime, either of which could explain the attack. He had previously received anonymous telephoned and written threats, yet, extraordinarily, Guatemala's Minister of the Interior rejected the Attorney General's report that he had been fired on.
"The Minister's statement is simply another indication of the lack of official support -- let alone protection -- for those in the prosecutor's office trying to genuinely carry out their duties and combat impunity," Amnesty International said.
One week later, on 12 December, long-term human rights campaigner Amílcar Méndez was fired upon after attending a meeting on the "disappearance" of indigenous rights lawyer, Antonio Pop Caal. Pop Caal went missing in October and his body was only located on 18 December. Guatemalan authorities are treating his abduction and murder as a common crime, but Amnesty International said it would study the case carefully to see if this was borne out by the facts.
December also saw the latest in a series of recent attacks against three sisters of guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca, apparently in reprisal for their role in securing the Inter-American Court's 2000 ruling which held the Guatemalan government responsible for Bámaca's detention, torture and extrajudicial execution at the hands of the Guatemalan army in 1992. In March 2002, the Court ordered the Guatemalan government to pay the family reparations. These were paid over in December on a confidential basis, but raiders on the homes of two of the sisters appeared to know about the payment, and apparently wanted to take it from them.
"The year 2002 had also been extremely disappointing in that there has been little advance by the government in implementing either the human rights-related aspects of the Peace Accords or the recommendations of the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH)," Amnesty International said.
Examples include the continued existence of the notorious Presidential Guard (Estado Mayor Presidencial), which should have been disbanded under the Peace Accords and instead has had its budget doubled during 2002 with some funding coming from the budgets of the Peace Secretariat, created to monitor implementation of the Peace Accords, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Nutrition.
"It defies belief, that at a time when the press is full of reports of Guatemalan children starving to death, funds are directed from nutrition towards the Presidential Guard," Amnesty International said.
"We were also extremely disappointed by the annulment in October of the 2001 convictions of three military officers for the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998. If justice cannot be seen to be done even in this most high profile of cases, what hope is there for the average citizen to obtain justice through the Guatemala courts?," it asked.
"Guatemala keeps assuring the international community of its commitment to combat impunity and ensure respect for human rights, yet the record for 2002 gives the lie to their claims that the situation is improving," the organization stressed.
"We can only hope that the international community, particularly countries and institutions that have been major donors to the Guatemalan peace process, will continue to insist on real and measurable progress in the new year. Empty promises must be shown up for what they are, and replaced by genuine, concrete steps towards improvement in the human rights situation," Amnesty International concluded.
During a civil conflict spanning more than 30 years, the Guatemalan army and the civilian agents under their command were responsible for gross human rights violations, including the massacre of the inhabitants of more than 600 indigenous villages. The conflict formally ended in 1996 when Peace Accords were signed between the Guatemalan military and the armed opposition.
The CEH established under the terms of the Peace Accords published its findings in 1999. These included the conclusion that the Guatemalan army had been responsible for genocide in four specific areas of the country. The wide-ranging recommendations made by the Commission to combat impunity and improve human rights protection have been largely ignored.
The EMP is officially mandated to provide security to the President, Vice President and their families, but functions instead as a military intelligence agency. Successive administrations have given dates by when it was to have been replaced by a civilian agency, but each date has come and gone without this being done.
At the time of his capture, torture and extrajudicial execution, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez was a commander with the Organización del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA), Organization of the People in Arms, one of the armed opposition groups belonging to the umbrella guerrilla movement which waged a civil conflict against the Guatemala military for a period of more than 30 years, until the 1996 final Peace Accords. Throughout the ten years since Efraín Bámaca's capture, those associated with his case have been subjected to repeated threats and acts of intimidation. Earlier this year, a witness in the case who had relocated to the United States, received threatening phone calls warning him to cease his involvement in the case.
View all documents on Guatemala: http://click.topica.com/maaaJHDaaUZr2bb0imub/
Guatemala - the lethal legacy of impunity: http://click.topica.com/maaaJHDaaUZr3bb0imub/
News Release Issued by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International
AI Index: AMR 34/082/2002 (Public)
News Service No: 229
11 December 2002
Amnesty International today expressed grave concern at an armed attack carried out against Guatemala's Attorney General on the evening of 5 December, but only made public days later. Carlos De León Argueta , the country's highest ranking prosecutorial officer, was fired upon by unidentified gunmen as he returned to his home in Guatemala City. Six shots were directed at the car he was driving, but hit only trees and a wall near the entrance to his home. The Attorney General escaped unhurt.
"Carlos De León is the highest ranking member of the Guatemalan legal community to suffer such an attempt on his life since Epaminondas González Dubón, then head of the country's Constitutional Court was extrajudicially executed in 1994," Amnesty International said.
"Both men had been involved in inquiries into past human rights violations and official involvement in drug-trafficking," the organization added saying that both attacks represented a grave assaults on the rule of law in Guatemala.
"The fact that the country's highest ranking prosecutorial officer, the Attorney General, can only carry out his duties at the risk of his life, gives some idea of the conditions under which other Guatemalan law professionals are forced to live, particularly those involved in efforts to combat impunity and bring the perpetrators of past emblematic human rights violations to justice," Amnesty International stressed.
"In such a context, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that the Guatemalan authorities are making any real progress towards returning the country to the rule of law," the human rights organization said.
"The government must now take immediate steps to address this situation by implementing effective measures to ensure protection for all members of the legal community and to conduct full investigations into threats, intimidation and attacks against them," Amnesty International added.
Amnesty International is particularly concerned that the Minister of Interior has been reported as publicly denying that the attack took place. Traditionally denial has been a common response by Guatemalan officials in response to reported human rights violations.
"In this case, however, it is strange, because one high-ranking official is casting doubts on reports from another high-ranking government official. It shows the lack of official support for those in the prosecutor's office trying to genuinely carry out their duties," Amnesty International said.
Amnesty International's concern at the growing threats against the judiciary led its International Legal Network to launch a special campaign for their protection only days ago, on 27 November. Over 5000 Amnesty International lawyers and other legal professionals in more than 40 countries will be offering their support to threatened jurists in Guatemala. They are also approaching members of the Guatemalan government, urging them to ensure protection for threatened jurists and to take other specific steps to improve the administration of justice in Guatemala.
Carlos De León Argueta took up his position as Attorney General in May this year. His appointment was welcomed by the local human rights community in Guatemala. Since taking office he appears to have made genuine efforts to investigate past human rights abuses. He is also responsible for investigating organised crime, corruption and drug-trafficking. His inquiries in those areas may have led to Thursday night's attack.
The attempt on his life took place the day that, as head of the Ministerio Público, Prosecutor's Office, he named the prosecutors to carry out investigations of high-ranking military officers accused of involvement in organised crime. However, Amnesty International said that the distinction between those responsible for past human rights violations and those involved in organised crime is not clear-cut -- often the same individuals are involved in both -- and that the Attorney General's work on human rights cases could also have led to the assassination attempt.
Following the attack, De León told a press conference that he would continue to carry out his official duties, but that he would take additional security precautions including keeping his official commitments confidential and constantly changing his place of residence. He also revealed that he had been receiving both written and telephone death threats.
Guatemala suffered a civil conflict which lasted over more than 30 years, only formally ending with Peace Accords in 1996. The Accords made far-reaching promises on a wide range of social, political and cultural issues, including as regards the administration of justice. However, few of the Accords commitments have been implemented, and those pressing to implement them or to combat the prevailing impunity for the gross abuses of the conflict years have suffered a series of new abuses. Over the past several years, the judicial sector appears to have been particularly targeted for repression.
After two visits to the country in 1999 and 2001, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Param Cumaraswamy reported on more than 90 cases of abuses against people involved in the justice system and urged the government to take steps to end threats and harassment against judges and lawyers. Only days before the attack on De León Argueta, Dina Ochoa, President of the Guatemalan Association of Judges and Magistrates of the Guatemalan Supreme Court called for better security and guarantees for the security of the Guatemalan legal community, listing 45 recent cases of threats and intimidation suffered by judges, lawyers and prosecutors.
Free Trade Areas of Americas
Chile and the United States wrapped up negotiations Wednesday -- though not without a dose of suspense -- on a bilateral free trade accord, which experts say will give Washington a boost as leader of the hemisphere-wide talks to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
SANTIAGO, Dec 11 (IPS) - Chile and the United States wrapped up negotiations Wednesday -- though not without a dose of suspense -- on a bilateral free trade accord, which experts say will give Washington a boost as leader of the hemisphere-wide talks to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
In Chile, the Ricardo Lagos government, industrialists and bankers applauded the agreement, while farmers and small and medium manufacturers received the news with a cautious attitude, and civil society groups launched a volley of criticisms.
"This free trade treaty sets a precedent and the Chilean government is thus responsible for advancing the FTAA through a bilateral channel that benefits the United States," Dante Donoso, coordinator of the Chilean Alliance for Fair and Responsible Trade, said in a conversation with IPS.
The outcome of talks officially begun in January 2001, the agreement was announced by Chile's Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear and the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick Wednesday afternoon in Washington, where the final nine days of the negotiations took place.
"We have reached a good agreement with the United States, the world's leading economic power. Chile will have a free trade agreement that will mean more jobs, more work, more development and more growth for this country," Lagos said Wednesday morning, prior to the official announcement of the accord.
Nicolás Eyzaguirre, Chile's minister of the Treasury, whose last-minute trip to Washington proved vital for resolving the remaining sticking points and giving the agreement the green light, said, "This is an historic day for Chile."
"I would not say that Chile had to give in," said the minister about the final terms of the talks, though he admitted that the Chilean delegation had to accept "some rules and procedures" about intellectual property rights and liberalisation of the financial market.
The new agreement could enter into force by mid-2003, given that U.S. President George W. Bush holds "fast-track" or "trade promotion" authority to expedite the approval process in the U.S. Congress. In Chile, too, there is majority support in parliament for the accord.
Chilean-U.S. trade totals 6.0 billion dollars annually. The treaty would immediately eliminate tariffs on 85 percent of consumer and industrial goods, said U.S. official Zoellick.
Minister Alvear, meanwhile, noted that 87 percent of Chilean exports to the United States would be exempt from tariffs in the first year of the treaty, and tariffs on the remaining items would be gradually reduced over the next 12 years.
The free trade treaty with the United States marks yet another achievement for the Lagos administration, which in April finalised talks on cooperation and trade agreement with the European Union, and in October signed a bilateral accord with South Korea, its first with an Asian-Pacific nation.
The seed of a Chilean trade alliance with the United States was planted in 1991, and at the first Summit of the Americas, in 1994, Chile was invited to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, comprising Canada, Mexico and the United States).
But then- president Bill Clinton failed to obtain fast-track authority so the deal was dropped in 1996. However, with a bilateral treaty with Mexico already in hand, Chile negotiated another with Canada that same year.
Lagos visited Washington in 2000 and obtained Clinton's promise to negotiate a free trade agreement, paving the way for the talks that began in January 2001, under the Bush administration.
The process leading up to the trade agreement "with the most solid economy in South America," as Bush describes Chile, has been watched closely because it is seen as sort of a litmus test for the FTAA, the hemisphere-wide treaty being negotiated by 34 countries.
In the middle of last week, Lagos warned that Chile would not sign the agreement if the United States continued to insist on limited quotas for imports of dairy and other agricultural products.
Alejandro Foxley, former Treasury minister and current senator, said Monday that the United States should agree to the Chilean demands if the Bush administration did not want to feed into the position of Brazil's president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Brazil, under the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government, worked to shore up support for its role as Latin American leader in international forums. Lula is largely picking up where Cardoso left off, and is calling for a united Latin America that should negotiate as a bloc with Washington.
Although the United States made some concessions on farm trade questions, new difficulties arose in the final days as the Washington team demanded liberalisation of the capital market and protection for intellectual property.
The United States asked Chile to eliminate its requirement for a guaranteed deposit for all foreign financial investments. Although the measure is not currently implemented, it could be reactivated as a mechanism against capital flight.
As for intellectual property rights, particularly for the pharmaceutical industry, Chile in the end agreed to rules on transparency and protection, "which in the long term will be to our benefit," commented Chilean official Eyzaguirre.
Although the exact terms of the agreement are not yet known, activist Donoso warned that in the intellectual property arena, Chile could be contradicting the "spirit of Doha", established at the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in the Qatar capital last year, to exempt urgently needed medicines from patent rules.
Gustavo Rojas, director of Chile's National Society of Agriculture, said the treaty is a good agreement, but noted that "agro-industry in general tends to be protected in the industrialised countries, and the Chilean negotiators -- regrettably and unjustifiably -- failed to break that imbalance."
The National Confederation of Medium, Small and Micro Industry and Services and Craftworks said it is inappropriate to sign a free trade agreement with the United States without first ensuring that measures are in place to allow Chilean producers to compete with those U.S. sectors.
The Confederation is urging the Lagos government to invest in improving technology and the export capacity of small and medium companies and crafts industries.
From a more global perspective, Donoso, coordinator of the Chilean Alliance for Fair and Responsible Trade, says that signing a free trade accord with the United States in the current context contradicts the objectives for strengthening democracy established in the 1990s with the Initiative for the Americas.
Chile is negotiating an exclusive trade agreement with the world's superpower, whose government is following a pro-war, militaristic agenda, "preparing aggression against Iraq," said Donoso.
The Lagos government acted "without solidarity or a common vision with the other Latin American countries" by ignoring the positions of Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, which challenge the FTAA negotiations currently taking place under U.S. hegemony, added the activist.
Furthermore, there was no formal or ongoing participating by civil society in the negotiations, beyond some informational meetings, which only produced a highly criticised committee, said Donoso.
More than 2,000 peasant farmers from throughout Mexico staged a protest Tuesday in the capital to demand a freeze on the agricultural provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they blame for most of their economic and social woes.
MEXICO CITY, Dec 3 (IPS) - More than 2,000 peasant farmers from throughout Mexico staged a protest Tuesday in the capital to demand a freeze on the agricultural provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they blame for most of their economic and social woes.
But their demands do not appear to have much chance of winning the desired response from the government
"I have nothing. I am here out of desperation because I am poorer than I have ever been," said Francisco Martínez, an elderly farmer who took part in Tuesday's march in Mexico City, carrying a sign that read "NAFTA Equals Death".
Under the slogan "the countryside can endure no more", farmers from 24 of Mexico's 32 states marched in Mexico City to the Congress building to present their demands and later staged protests outside the U.S. and French embassies.
UNORCA, the national union of some 30 regional peasant groups, organised the demonstrations with the aim of preventing the agricultural trade liberalisation measures -- agreed under NAFTA, which comprises Canada, Mexico and the United States -- from taking effect in January.
The new phase of liberalisation entails the complete elimination of tariffs on 21 farm products, including potatoes, wheat, apples, onions, coffee, chicken and veal.
The NAFTA mechanism, which UNORCA describes as "toxic to the Mexican countryside," establishes three steps towards liberalising the farm and livestock sector. The first occurred in 1994 when the three-nation treaty entered into force, the second is slated for January, and the third in 2008.
In 1993, when NAFTA was still being negotiated, the government of Carlos Salinas, then president of Mexico (1988-1994), agreed to the process of a gradual elimination of agricultural tariffs with the support of the country's leading farm organisations.
Now, nearly a decade later, they are all complaining.
Recognising the difficulties that Mexican farmers face with the deepening of trade liberalisation, President Vicente Fox announced in November that the government would provide support for rural producers to the tune of 10 billion dollars in 2003, or 7.7 percent more aid than this year.
Fox stated last month that he is very concerned about how the trade liberalisation process is unfolding, "in light of the U.S. subsidies to its agricultural production."
He said he would take up the matter with the George W. Bush administration, but there has not been any indication of action so far.
The Mexican president's aim would be to press the United States to eliminate its farm subsidies, which total 19 billion dollars a year, nearly double what Mexico has budgeted for its farmers in 2003.
But Washington announced that it will not alter its farm subsidy policies and that the situation of the Mexican farmers does not justify annulment of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA.
Mexico would not ask for a suspension of the trade agreement's farm provisions anyway, say Fox administration sources, because doing so would mean revoking the country's recognition of the treaty itself.
Since NAFTA took effect, Mexico's overall exports shot up from 60.9 billion dollars in 1994 to 158.4 billion dollars in 2001. In that same period, imports jumped from 79.3 billion dollars to 168.4 billion dollars annually.
More than 85 percent of Mexican trade is currently concentrated in exchange with the United States.
But for Mexico's rural areas, where 75 percent of the population living in extreme poverty is concentrated, the three- country treaty has meant the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cultivated land.
And the decline of the rural sector has pushed 15 million peasants -- and mostly young people -- to move to the cities, either in Mexico or in the United States, according to a study by the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).
Over the last 10 years, the participation of the farming sector in Mexico's gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 7.3 percent to less than 5.0 percent.
The protests Tuesday echoed similar demonstrations in November, including the blockade of a main federal highway by farmers in the state of Morelos, neighbouring the Mexico City federal district, and protests by peasants from the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero outside government offices in the capital.
The common denominator of all of these events is the rural producers' rejection of NAFTA.
"The farmers are walking towards death because they are up against the 'disloyal' trade competition from the United States and the Mexican government's desertion of the countryside," says Alberto Gómez, UNORCA executive coordinator.
Without exception, Mexico's farmer organisations believe the new phase of NAFTA-stipulated farm trade liberalisation will generate more poverty and prompt more people to leave rural areas.
They also reckon that the financial support Fox has promised will not be nearly enough.
Mariano Ruiz, an analyst with the Mexico City-based Grupo de Economistas y Asociados, says the worst blow for the Mexican farmers will come in 2008 when the agricultural tariffs on products like maize and beans are lifted.
An estimated 2.8 million Mexican farm families make their livelihood from these commodities.
"The countryside is a time-bomb that could explode very soon," commented Rosario Robles, chairwoman of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the country's third political force.
The elderly farmer Martínez, who joined his colleagues for the Mexico City march Tuesday, does not believe in anything that the Fox government is offering.
"I have heard many things in the two years since he took office. The one thing for certain is that I am getting poorer and poorer," he said.
BUENOS AIRES, Dec 20 (IPS) - Hundreds of thousands of people in Argentina held a peaceful march Friday to demand changes in the country's economic policy and political leadership, a year after the massive protests that toppled the government of Fernando de la Rúa.
''People are tired of the current way of doing politics. The government (of Eduardo Duhalde) has to go,'' Jorge Ceballos, the national coordinator of the ''Barrios de Pie'' movement, told IPS as he marched towards downtown Buenos Aires along with thousands and thousands of other demonstrators.
Barrios de Pie (Neighbourhoods on their Feet), an organisation that groups unemployed families from slums and lower-income neighbourhoods, was one of the many social organisations and leftist parties which called the two-day march that set out Thursday from Argentina's main cities.
The calm surrounding the protests was a far cry from the climate that reigned a year ago, when demonstrators took to the streets spontaneously, expressing their outrage at the leaders of the traditional parties, who they blamed for the country's economic collapse.
Analysts said the change of attitude was due largely to the gradual lifting of the year-long freeze on bank accounts, the broader distribution of stipends to unemployed heads of households, and the lid kept on inflation in the past few months, although serious problems like soaring unemployment and poverty persist.
The march was organised by the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA) central trade union, which also held a 24-hour strike; Barrios de Pie; the Corriente Clasista y Combativa (Combative and Classist Current); the Federación de Tierra y Vivienda (Land and Housing Federation); and the Bloque Piquetero Nacional, a group of unemployed who mount roadblocks.
Also taking part in Friday's protest were the neighbourhood assemblies that have been meeting over the past year, human rights groups, university students, pensioners, farmers, and leftist parties.
The slogan of the demonstration, which included artistic presentations, was ''Out with the Lot of Them!'' -- a reference to the alternation in power of the two traditional parties, the Justicialista (Peronist) Party and the Radical Civic Union (UCR).
The demonstrators also demanded urgent changes to the economic policies followed by Duhalde's Justicialista government since Congress appointed him on Jan 1 to complete the four-year term of the UCR's de la Rúa.
''To resolve the problem of hunger and unemployment, we need them all to go,'' said Juan Carlos Alderete, the leader of the Corriente Clasista y Combativa (CCC), another group that represents unemployed workers.
The differences in political strategy between the myriad groups, which were not expressed Friday, lie in the steps they believe should be taken to bring about the change in politics in this Southern Cone country of 37 million, Latin America's third-largest economy, which is experiencing its worst economic and social crisis ever.
The CCC and the Bloque Piquetero Nacional propose that a ''people's assembly'' be held to decide on the policies that they will demand of the new government to emerge out of the early elections scheduled for April.
Other groups, however, want to get directly involved in politics. That is the case of the CTA labour confederation, which was created by the unions of public employees and teachers as an alternative to the powerful Justicialista-affiliated Confederación General del Trabajo central trade union.
Some 10,000 delegates meeting in a two-day congress this month organised by the CTA decided to create a political movement aimed at forming a coalition with other social organisations and parties, to seek elective posts in the coming elections.
The caravans that set out this week from several different provinces converged Friday on the Plaza de Mayo, outside the seat of government in the capital. No incidents were reported.
The peaceful climate contrasted sharply with the heavy security operation mounted by the government, which included fences thrown up around the seat of government and Congress, out of fear of a repeat of last year's looting and rioting.
''They fanned the fears of local business owners, and said we were going to start looting. But the shopkeepers along the main avenues waved at us and applauded because they know it isn't the 'piqueteros' who are to blame for their problems, but the neo-liberal economic policies that have sunk this country,'' said Ceballos.
Several weeks ago, the unemployed movement denounced that local political leaders had offered them money to stage incidents of looting during the demonstration.
City councillors from neighbourhoods in the greater Buenos Aires confirmed the reports, and pointed their fingers at followers of former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who they said were trying to recreate the atmosphere of chaos that reigned a year ago today.
On Dec 19, 2001, thousands of impoverished residents of Buenos Aires, tired of four years of recession and high unemployment, looted supermarkets and grocery stores. The rioting and the subsequent police repression left more than 20 dead and many more injured.
After de la Rúa declared a state of siege, tens of thousands of mainly middle-class residents of Buenos Aires began to bang on pots and pans on their balconies and in their homes.
They later converged on the Plaza de Mayo, where they remained, along with unemployed protesters and workers, until the wee hours of the morning of Dec 20 to demand that the president resign.
Weakened by the economic crisis, which was becoming unmanageable, the first to hand in his resignation was economy minister Domingo Cavallo. Shortly afterwards, de la Rúa did so himself, abandoning the government palace in a helicopter while the police cracked down brutally on demonstrators in the Plaza de Mayo, where six were killed by police bullets.
The two days of rioting, looting and protests marked the start of a political
crisis in which the country went through four different presidents in
less than two weeks. Although the political turmoil finally let up when
Duhalde was appointed by Congress, the social unrest continued for months.
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador, Jul 26 (IPS) - The Second Meeting of South American Presidents under way in this Ecuadorian city has turned into slam against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and the beginning of a new integration framework for the region.
The "Guayaquil Consensus on integration, security and infrastructure for development", the meeting's final document, to be signed Saturday, casts doubt on the viability of implementing the FTAA in late 2005, as many in South America seem to be against it.
Outside the meeting site, a march organised by civil society groups in Ecuador to present a letter to the South American summit ended in clashes with the police, leaving several people injured and 22 arrested.
Indigenous, peasant and social leaders were attempting to present the summit with a letter expressing their criticisms of the FTAA (the proposed hemisphere-wide trade zone), echoing those declared by several of the presidents early on the first day of the summit.
Blanca Chancoso, a leader of the indigenous movement, commented that the good intentions of some of the region's leaders and foreign ministers to cast the FTAA aside lost their shine in the police crackdown on a peaceful demonstration.
"If they say they are open to the people, they should allow a demonstration that only sought to express our rejection of the FTAA and Plan Colombia (anti-drugs campaign), and present a document to the presidents," said Chancoso.
Among the people arrested in the protest was Jorge Loor, president of the National Peasant Association, one of Ecuador's most important civil society organisations.
Meanwhile, at the first session of the two-day South American summit, Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso made it clear that he believes conditions do not exist for finalising the FTAA, especially when the United States is closing its doors and increasing its protectionist measures and farm subsidies.
"The signals they have sent us are about restrictions. They talk to us about integration, but in practice they exclude us and marginalize our products," stressed Cardoso.
Cardoso said he has been in the presidency for eight years, with a "healthy macroeconomic situation based on adjustments," and that he has had to make "great efforts to maintain social policies." However, he said he does not see the will among the countries of the industrialised North to "modify the current path of the global economy."
"We witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, but have not seen the transformation of the United Nations into a tool for building a multipolar world," Cardoso told his South American colleagues.
"We are in a world governed by a global directorate, the G-8 (Group of Eight most powerful countries), who fear meeting openly because the people distrust them, that when they meet behind closed doors they do nothing that benefits the people."
Indigenous leader Chancoso borrowed Cardoso's words about the G- 8 to make a parallel criticism of the gathering of presidents.
"The repression against the social movements this Friday leads us to think the same about this group of leaders, and particularly about the president of Ecuador, Gustavo Noboa," she said.
The Brazilian president stated that the G-8 meetings have melded those countries into a single power, and that this "is not a just world, it is a unilateral world... contrary to what we South Americans want. This is why we are talking about multilateralism."
The countries of South America must reach consensus and build solidarity in order to counteract the political irrationality of the markets, said Cardoso, one of the driving forces behind the regional summit, which met for the first time in Brasilia in 2000.
In his opening address, President Noboa called on multilateral finance organisations, particularly the International Monetary Fund, to open new lines of credit to back the integration process, but without affecting the debt burden of the region's countries.
According to the Ecuadorian president, this burden hurts domestic social policies because it forces governments to implement strict adjustments.
President Alejandro Toledo, of Peru, stressed in his initial speech that, far from falling into "populist policies", it is clear that the countries of the region intend to "comply with IMF commitments."
Unlike some of his counterparts gathered in Guayaquil, President Luis González Macchi, of Paraguay, said he believes the FTAA would benefit South America, despite certain risks.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, meanwhile, focused on regional integration, saying that the unity of South America should be centred on "politics and ethics", above economics and trade.
"The process of South American integration is vital and essential for the future of our countries," Chávez said.
Likewise, President Ricardo Lagos, of Chile, warned that if the region does not deepen its unity, the globalised world will devour it.
Noboa pointed out that a space for integration would make competition viable with other in a globalised world. "South American integration is more necessary than thinking about the FTAA."
Outside the summit, peasant leader Rodrigo Collahuazo issued a call for the rapid release of the arrested demonstrators and urged Cardoso and Noboa to make sure their words were not mere rhetoric aimed at containing the continent's social movements, which have already expressed their rejection of the FTAA to their presidents.
"They wouldn't just be trying to put on a new face before the October presidential elections in Brazil and Ecuador, would they?" said Collahuazo with irony.
The indigenous leader called attention to the fact that now Noboa makes criticisms, "when in the past he submerged Ecuador in dollarisation at the behest of the United States as a step prior to the FTAA, and is highly dependent on the IMF."
QUITO, Oct 30 (IPS) - Ecuador's indigenous movement, the best- organised in Latin America, won more than 12 percent of the vote in the first round of this Andean nation's general elections last week, the fruit of more than a decade of organising.
Although the first round was held on Oct 20, only 50 percent of the ballots have been tallied so far by the private company in charge of the vote-count. However, the tendencies indicate that Indian candidates to parliament and municipal governments took over 12 percent of the vote.
According to the preliminary results, the Pachakutik-New Country Movement of Multi-national Unity, the political arm of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE), won 10 or 11 seats in the 100-member single-chamber Congress, compared to five in the previous parliament, four of whom were indigenous.
The Pachakutik Movement also contributed to the first-place triumph of retired colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, the presidential candidate of the Patriotic Society Party, who garnered 20.73 percent of the vote with the backing of an alliance of indigenous and social groups.
Gutiérrez will dispute the Nov 24 runoff with banana industry magnate Alvaro Noboa, whose share of the vote was 17.37 percent.
The votes tallied so far show that voters in the central highlands provinces of Pichincha -- the capital of which is Quito-- , Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Azuay, Imbabura and Bolívar elected indigenous lawmakers.
Pachakutik also expects victories in the eastern Amazon jungle provinces of Zamora Chinchipe, Morona Santiago, Napo and Sucumbíos, although not all of the candidates were Indians, because the movement formed part of an electoral alliance with social organisations and Gutiérrez's party.
On the other hand, the first indigenous presidential candidate in the history of Ecuador, Antonio Vargas, a former president of CONAIE and the head of the Ecuadorean Federation of Evangelical Indigenous people, captured a mere 0.5 percent of the vote.
Indigenous activist Luis Macas, who according to the preliminary results was elected to the Andean Parliament, told IPS that the progress made by the country's indigenous people on the electoral front came within the context of broader advances made in other areas of social, political and cultural life.
The 25-member Andean Parliament is made up of five seats for each member country: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. But only voters in Venezuela and Ecuador directly elect their regional representatives.
''The triumph of our brothers and sisters in several provinces is the consolidation of a multi-national vision of the country, in which cultural diversity is expressed, and in which 'the other' ceases to be merely a consumer of politics, to become an actor,'' said Macas.
More than 3.5 million of Ecuador's 12.4 million people are Indians, distributed in 11 ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Quechua, whose people live in the highlands region and in the Amazon jungle in the eastern part of the country.
The Awa, Chachi, Epera and Tsáchila inhabit the area along the Pacific coast, and the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, Achuar and Shuar live in the Amazon jungle.
''Through their struggle, the communities have gradually won spaces in the country's public life, and now have an important presence in the political agenda. Even the possibility of taking part in governing the country has come up,'' said Macas.
The activist pointed to city and provincial governments ruled by indigenous people as examples of sound administration and participation on equal terms.
The 27 city governments ruled by Indians have been praised for their implementation of development projects in conjunction with non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) granted a prize to the city government of Cotacachi, in the province of Imbabura, for its participative administration.
In 1996, Mayor Auki Tituaña was elected with just over 50 percent of the vote. But in 2000, he garnered more than 85 percent, winning over even ''mestizo'' or mixed-race voters, who in the past had never backed indigenous candidates.
Political adversaries do not generally criticise the performance of municipal governments headed by indigenous people. But they do take issue with the attempt to achieve legal recognition for indigenous systems of justice, which are applied in native communities.
One characteristic of indigenous governments is the strong role played by municipal assemblies, in which representatives of the community decide on how budgetary funds should be used.
According to Ricardo Ulcuango, deputy-elect for the Pachakutik Movement, first it was the fight for land -- ''which never ends'' -- and then for bilingual education, respect for indigenous culture and nationalities, and full social and political participation.
''Although we have progressed on all fronts, and in economic terms as well, the majority of our people in the countryside and cities continue to suffer economic discrimination, and racism has not been eradicated in our country,'' said Ulcuango.
Anthropologist Antonio Rodríguez, technical director of the Coordinator of Alternative Local Governments, which groups municipal governments with ties to the indigenous movement and other social organisations, said it is important to understand the historic process experienced by the country's indigenous peoples.
The indigenous community ''is where a different form of human relations is being built, where 'minga' (collective labour) and solidarity are the key concepts,'' said Rodríguez.
The anthropologist noted that ''Ecuador's indigenous movement has a long history of rebellion.''
He pointed to Dolores Cacuango and Tránsito Amaguaña, indigenous women who created the country's first union of agricultural workers in the early 20th century, headed the first strikes by indigenous peasants, and founded the Ecuadorean Federation of Indians, as well as rural schools in which the Quechua language was taught for the first time.
''Nearly half a century went by before the indigenous movement once again made its appearance in public life, with the staging of the Inti Raymi uprising in June 1990,'' said Rodríguez, who was referring to an unprecedented week-long spate of protests organised by CONAIE.
In the view of Macas, a founder of CONAIE and the current dean of the Intercultural University of Indigenous Peoples, the possibility of participating in the national government alongside Gutiérrez is another challenge for the movement.
''Ushay in Quechua means power, which signifies improving living conditions, and the capacity to develop ourselves collectively,'' he said. ''The government can be another area to build ushay.''
Some analysts say the fact that Gutiérrez and Noboa were the two candidates to make it to the second round of elections was a reflection of the public's rejection of the traditional parties that have governed the country since the return to democracy in 1979.
The Oct 20 first-round victory of Gutiérrez, a retired colonel who led a rebellion of junior military officers and indigenous people on Jan 21, 2000, came as a surprise, as he had stood third in the opinion polls.
The 2000 indigenous and military uprising culminated in a coup d'etat against the government of Jamil Mahuad. The vice-president, Gustavo Noboa, was sworn in as president.
''Today is a very tough day, a day of tears. But the story does not end here,'' Macas said at the time.
Recalling the revolt, Macas says today that ''certainly, the story did not end there, it only began again. The history of the indigenous communities is beginning anew every day.''
The new constitution in effect since 1998 recognises the collective rights of indigenous peoples and the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character of the country.
Along with the constitutional amendments approved in 1998, convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation, which recognises the rights of indigenous peoples, was also ratified by Congress.
QUITO, Nov 1 (IPS) - The Continental Assembly of Peoples of the Americas, meeting Friday in the Ecuadorian capital, exhorted the region's governments to reject the Free Trade Area of the Americas, saying it will harm their cultures and the environment and deplete natural resources.
In the final declaration of the indigenous meet, titled "Mandate from the Peoples", the delegates set new dates for "cultural-territorial resistance and affirmation" to fight the hemisphere-wide FTAA.
The indigenous activists see the economic approach of the FTAA as the same that "was implemented in 1492, when the pillaging of our wealth and of our natural resources began," said Evo Morales, who was a presidential candidate in Bolivia's elections in June.
"What they are seeking now is simply to deepen that model, which is based on free imports and is a policy aimed at concentrating wealth in the hands of a few," the Indian leader told IPS.
The Continental Assembly of Peoples was held in Quito in parallel to the seventh FTAA ministerial-level conference, which drew foreign affairs and trade ministers from the 34 countries that are involved in creating the free trade zone -- all nations of North and South America and the Caribbean, except Cuba.
The preparatory meetings that took place this week were surrounded by massive street protests, with violent police crackdowns dispersing some of the demonstrations.
Morales, who took part in the Assembly of Peoples, said the promoters of the FTAA are not interested in environmental conservation, in contrast to the native communities of the Americas, whose cultures are based on living in harmony with nature.
"The economy should be subordinate to the preservation of the planet," a fundamental value of "the indigenous movements, whether Quechua, Aymara, Guaraní, Aztec, Quiche or Mapuche, because we live in a direct relationship with Mother Earth," he said.
"In the world of the indigenous peoples, we seek to produce for the common good, in the context of reciprocity and solidarity, something the FTAA completely cancels out," Morales added.
It is proposals like those of the FTAA that brought crisis to Latin America and have triggered the "resistance of Indians and of social movements," and are fomenting its expansion, said the former presidential candidate, who lost the Bolivian elections by just 1.5 percent of the vote.
Despite their rejection of FTAA, the indigenous communities maintain open dialogue aimed at integrating the countries of Latin America, as has always been proposed by the region's ethnic and social movements, he said.
The final document of the Assembly, signed by indigenous, environmental, peasant and trade union organisations from more than 20 countries, asks the governments of the Americas what "integration" they are talking about, if their economic policies "are disintegrating and eliminating" the original communities of the area encompassed by the FTAA.
"What integration are you proposing if the basis of your approach is competition, the desire to accumulate and obtain profit at any price, inequality, disrespect for peoples and cultures, and the aim to unite us all in the market and in consumerism," said the indigenous delegates gathered in Quito.
"What integration are you proclaiming if the first and fundamental interrelation of every human being is with Mother Earth and you fail to realise it," states the declaration.
Leonidas Iza, president of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), warned that implementing the FTAA could mean the privatisation of such basic services as water and the invasion of genetically modified agricultural products.
"Inequality will bring with it the destruction of the ancestral cultures and the ethical values that continue to subsist, and will even end up dismantling the nation states and turn them into incorporated colonies," stated Iza.
The indigenous leaders who participated in Friday's Assembly reaffirmed the "autonomy and free territorial, cultural, political and governmental determination" of their peoples, vindicating their "territories and the collective right to biodiversity."
"We indigenous peoples do not permit patents or other private property rights over life and traditional knowledge, because for us they are of a collective nature, inalienable and inter- generational, and they are linked to the notion of our ancestral territories."
"As such, we indigenous peoples have decided not to compete in the system of the globalised market," stated Felipe Quishpe, of Bolivia.
"We create and maintain terraced farmland, we farm without chemicals, we enrich the soils by using complementary crops. With this approach we both maintain genetic diversity and strengthen the agricultural system against plagues and the imponderables of nature," he said.
Quishpe added that many indigenous communities implement "renewable, non-polluting forms of generating energy, and are exploring other renewable energy technologies, like bio-gas and solar energy."
The final declaration of the Assembly of Peoples concludes with the proposal for a referendum across the Americas so that citizens can express whether or not they support the creation of the Canada- to-Tierra del Fuego free trade zone.
U.S. sociologist James Petras, who attended the Assembly as an observer, told IPS he is convinced that his country is promoting the FTAA because there are still economic areas in Latin America that cannot completely control, such as the petroleum industry in Venezuela and other economic sectors in Ecuador and Brazil.
"The big illusion of the FTAA for Latin America is to achieve access to a market of 800 million people, but that dream is based on the United States favouring true free trade, which it does not," said the sociologist.
QUITO, Dec 23 (IPS) - The participation of several indigenous people in the government to take office on Jan 15 in Ecuador, in which Kichwa parliamentarian Nina Pacari is expected to serve as foreign minister, highlights the growing influence of the country's indigenous movement.
President-elect Lucio Gutiérrez told IPS in an interview last Friday that the members of the cabinet, to be announced within the next few days, will include prominent indigenous and civil society leaders and activists.
Gutiérrez won the second round of elections in November at the head of an alliance between his small party, the 21st of January Patriotic Society Party, and the Pachakutik-New Country Movement of Plurinational Unity, garnering 54.4 percent of the vote compared to the 45.6 percent taken by his rival Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate and the richest man in the country.
Pacari is likely to be named to the Foreign Ministry, due to the capacity she has demonstrated as vice-president of Congress, added Gutiérrez, a retired colonel who took part in a January 2000 indigenous and military uprising that overthrew then-president Jamil Mahuad.
Other spokespersons for the new government also commented to IPS that Gutiérrez was getting ready to name Pacari foreign minister, despite the pressure from right-wing sectors and circles within the Foreign Ministry itself, which are opposed to the appointment of an indigenous woman.
Although the pressure was not publicly expressed, it led to a delay in the announcement of Pacari's new post, which will be formally made public on a date closer to Jan 15, when the government of Gustavo Noboa -- no relation to Alvaro -- hands over to Gutiérrez and his team.
''Indigenous people are going to occupy a prominent place in my government, not only because they belong to the alliance that won the elections, but because they have representatives who are highly qualified to hold the most important public posts,'' said Gutiérrez.
The national coordinator of the Pachakutik-New Country Movement of Plurinational Unity, Miguel Lluco, stated that his group would share power in the next government, in a categorical response to press reports on a supposed crisis in the coalition.
''We are not part of the government; we are government,'' Lluco stated emphatically. He also clarified that his movement's participation in the government would be based on a shared programme and co-participation in the public administration at all levels.
''It isn't a question of divvying up the ministries, but of sharing responsibilities,'' he added.
Analyst Rosa Rodríguez, writing in the local publication Tintají, said the pressure against Pacari being named foreign minister demonstrated the racism that remains strong but hidden among some political and economic sectors in Ecuador.
''Above and beyond her progressive political positions and outstanding professional qualifications, Nina Pacari represents two sectors which suffer discrimination in Ecuadorean society: Indians and women. If she is not named, it could be taken as just one more form of discrimination,'' argued Rodríguez.
Around 30 percent of Ecuador's 12.5 million people belong to 12 distinct indigenous groups, the largest of which is the Kichwa, who inhabit the country's highlands as well as the eastern Amazon jungle region.
Other ethnic groups living in the Amazon jungle are the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, Achuar, Shuar and Zápara, while the Awa, Chachi, Epera and Tsáchila live in the Pacific coastal region.
Since 1996, Ecuador's indigenous people have taken part in elections through the Pachakutik Movement, which brings together Indians, environmentalists, women's groups, and other sectors of civil society.
The movement's parliamentary slate in the 1998 elections was headed by Pacari, who in August of that same year was elected vice- president of Congress, a post never before held by an indigenous person.
Pacari, a Kichwa Indian, was born in 1961 in Cotacachi, in the northern province of Imbabura. She is a lawyer, and served as director of land and territories in the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
In 1997 she was named chair of the National Council of Planning for Indigenous and Black Peoples, a body created to design state policies for indigenous people and blacks, and to plan and implement projects aimed at their development and empowerment.
In November 1997, she was elected as a member of the National Constituent Assembly, which drafted the constitution that was adopted in 1998.
Pacari's designation as vice-president of Congress sent shock waves through the country.
''Ecuador is not accustomed to seeing an indigenous woman in the leadership of such an important body of authority as the legislature,'' she said on assuming the post. ''It must get used to seeing Indians and women in decision-making posts, who do not lose their identity or their commitment to the sectors they represent.''
Pacari has expressed opposition to the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), ''if there are no changes that take into account and address the weaknesses of the small countries'' involved in the continent-wide free trade initiative.
She is also opposed to Plan Colombia, a partly U.S.-financed multi-billion dollar anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy, on the argument that ''it is deepening Colombia's internal conflict.''
However, she is in favour of greater integration in South America. ''We must move towards political, economic, social and cultural integration, the starting-point of which could be an agreement between the Andean Community and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur),'' she said.
Ecuador is a member of the Andean Community trade bloc, along with Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. The Mercosur is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Deputy-elect Ricardo Ulcuango, a former vice-president of CONAIE, believes Pacari's likely designation will send a strong message to the world that Ecuador, and a large part of Latin America, are truly interested in change.
''For the first time, a Latin American country will have a female indigenous foreign minister, with all that this signifies in today's globalised times,'' said Ulcuango.
Pacari, meanwhile, said the country has moved from the political and social uniformity of the 1980s to a multicultural society and greater recognition of the various nationalities that make up the population of this Andean nation.
''I hope that the experience (of indigenous leaders) in the city governments, Congress and the future government will contribute to building a plurinational state, whose structure and administration reflect the country's multicultural nature,'' she said.
WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (IPS) - Despite strong objections from environmental and indigenous non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the governors of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Wednesday approved 132 million dollars in financing for a controversial pipeline project led by the Bolivian subsidiaries of Shell and scandal-plagued Enron Corporation.
The bank said the project, which will finance the construction of the Yabog gas pipeline, will boost the country's exports while also meeting internal demand. The Andean Development Corporation is also providing 88 million dollars in co-financing for the pipeline.
The project is designed to double the capacity of the existing Transredes pipeline so it can transport more than one million cubic feet of gas a day by 2004, by adding parallel sections and refurbishing and expanding compression stations along the pipeline's route from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Argentina.
The approval outraged environmental groups that have been calling on the IDB for months to reject the funding requests.
''U.S. tax dollars should not be used for the destruction of pristine tropical forests,'' said Atossi Soltani, executive director of California-based Amazon Watch.
''The IDB's rejection of this loan was crucial in signalling to Enron and others that they can no longer count on public coffers to underwrite the devastation of globally treasured ecosystems. Obviously, they're not interested in sending that message.''
In anticipation of the vote, Amazon Watch, as well as Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), released a report and video detailing the ongoing impacts of Enron and Shell's Cuiaba and Bolivia-Brazil pipelines.
The report, based on on-site inspections of the pipelines, found that prevention and mitigation measures promised by the two energy giants had failed to curtail what it called ''egregious social and environmental impacts that continue to this day, and, in many cases, are intensifying''.
It concluded that the decision to build the pipelines through the Chiquitano Forest - the most intact dry tropical forest in the world - wreaked widespread damage that had been compounded by a botched conservation programme.
And despite promises by the companies, the project, which was backed by a 200-million-dollar loan to Enron by the government-owned U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), failed to prevent illegal hunting and logging along the pipeline route, leading to rapid deforestation in the area.
Shortly after Enron declared bankruptcy one year ago, OPIC, Enron's largest public funder, cancelled the loan.
The report also found that the companies had failed to provide some 38 Chiquitano and Ayoreo indigenous communities along the pipeline route with land titles or long-term compensation for the loss of livelihood resulting from the project.
It also discovered that the recently re-opened Don Mario Gold Mine, located in the Chiquitano Forest and partially owned by Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was siphoning off gas from the pipeline for its own use despite specific commitments from the companies that it would not take place.
Sanchez de Lozada lobbied personally for the project when he visited the IDB last month. He has been an ardent supporter of plans to exploit Bolivia's gas reserves by exporting them to energy-poor countries, including to the west coast of Mexico and the United States.
''Prior to construction of the Cuiaba pipeline three years ago, OPIC, Enron and Shell pledged that pipeline out-take valves would not be built in the Chiquitano Forest,'' said John Sohn, an expert with FoE. ''We warned that new extensions of the pipeline through the forest would be disastrous as they would allow a number of industrial projects to pop up in a sensitive ecological area.''
''Now, that is exactly what has happened,'' he added.
The report also found that the pipelines had a social impact: exacerbating inequality and increasing social conflict in the region.
With the same companies behind Bolivia's request for IDB money to develop the Yabog pipeline, the groups insisted that the bank would be ''negligent'' if it approved the project, which will disturb the ecology even though the right-of-way is the same as the existing pipeline.
Last week, the groups sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department, which represents the United States on the IDB's executive board, calling for Washington to strongly oppose the project. The letter cited the November report and another study by the Chiquitano Indigenous Organization and the Bolivian NGO CEADES that cited unresolved issues in 16 affected indigenous communities.
As a result, the United States, which holds 30 percent of the voting power in the IDB, decided to abstain on the loan vote, but that was not enough to defeat it.
''The whole thing seems cooked,'' said Derrick Hindery of Amazon Watch. ''It really smells of stealthy manoeuvring on the part of the U.S. executive director's office so that the U.S. could save face by abstaining while knowing that the loan would still be approved.''
Before the vote, the IDB said it would consider the request with an open mind.
''We don't automatically consider that a past inadequate performance means that the companies are not capable of rectifying those deficiencies,'' an IDB spokesman told IPS before the vote. ''All development projects have impacts, and the question is whether the mitigation measures are sufficient to protect communities and the environment.''
The groups also strongly oppose a second planned pipeline in Peru, the
Camisea Project, which they say is just as flawed as Yabog and the two other
pipelines. Both the IDB and the U.S. Export-Import Bank are currently considering
financing that project.
WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (IPS) - The construction of natural gas pipelines from Bolivia to Brazil not only threatens the unique ecosystems and indigenous communities that they traverse.
It also makes it far less likely that researchers searching for the wild ancestors of peanuts in the Gran Chaco region of southeastern Bolivia will reach the valuable plants before they are destroyed by the development, say scientists working there.
The plants' unique genetic make-up could provide a boost to their modern descendants, which are a key source of nutrition for the poor in Asia and Africa.
''Now that these wild peanut relatives are in the path of large-scale development projects, it is crucial that these species be collected, studied and conserved before they are irretrievably lost,'' said David Williams, a plant explorer and ethno-botanist who works for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in Cali, Colombia.
''And their loss isn't just to Bolivia, which has sovereign control over their genetic resources, but also to peanut farmers and consumers worldwide, especially in the poorer countries of Asia and Africa, where peanuts are even more important as a subsistence crop than in South America,'' he added.
Peanuts, also known as groundnuts, are grown in 108 countries worldwide. While eaten mainly as a snack food or peanut butter in North America and Europe, they are a key source of protein and oil in diets in poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. Roughly 90 percent of the world's peanut crop is grown in poor countries, often in areas with poor soils and little rainfall.
But peanuts are susceptible to many pests and diseases that can greatly reduce yields, according to Future Harvest, a Washington-based foundation that promotes agricultural research in 16 international centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), based at World Bank headquarters here.
Researchers like Williams seek out ancient wild varieties of plants, including groundnuts, which may have resistances and other qualities that, when introduced into more modern strains, can increase yield or hardiness. ''The species we are looking for could eliminate much of the need for peanut farmers to use pesticides and also help them to cope with drought and disease,'' Williams said.
''We know there are more wild peanuts to be collected in the Chaco region, and we know that they're threatened,'' he added. In 1994, Williams took part in a major expedition in the region, believed to be the area where two wild species crossed paths and combined six to eight thousand years ago, creating the 'B-genome' ancestor of the peanuts that people eat today.
Subsequently, farms and plant breeders unintentionally bred out many of the genes that were present in the first ancestor, which Williams calls the ''holy grail of peanut evolution''. The researcher believes that between 15 and 20 wild species remain undiscovered in the region.
''If we can put back into modern varieties some of the disease and drought resistant genes from the ancient ancestors of groundnuts, we should be able to give Asian and African farmers a helping hand,'' says William Dar, director general of the International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, which houses nearly 15,000 different types of cultivated and wild groundnuts.
''The availability of one of the original parents of today's cultivated varieties would be an enormous addition to national and international peanut collections and would aid breeding efforts for poor people who depend upon peanuts,'' he added.
Construction of the pipelines in Bolivia over the past three years has resulted in the in-migration of people into the remote areas that were the birthplace and cradle of the world's peanuts, where they build farms and ranches along the feeder roads used by construction crews to construct the pipeline, inevitably transforming the surrounding ecology.
These intrusions have produced a backlash on the part of the indigenous groups that have lived in the Chiquitano Forest and the Chaco for millennia.
As they mobilised against the pipeline construction, they pressed the Bolivian government to oppose any additional encroachment, including the collection of native plant species. As a result, Williams and other researchers have been unable to get a license to explore the area and remove samples.
The two-billion-dollar Bolivia-Brazil pipeline, the largest private-sector investment in Latin America, was supported by a 310 million dollar loan from the World Bank and another 14.6 million dollars in insurance guarantees to Enron Corporation, which, along with Shell, is among the major owners.
Both the Bolivia-Brazil and the associated Cuiaba pipelines have come under withering attack by indigenous and international environmental groups.
Amazon Watch, Friends of the Earth, and the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies last month released a detailed audit of the projects, based on on-site investigations, which found ''egregious social and environmental impacts that continue to this day, and, in many cases, are intensifying''.
The report found the companies' conservation programme had been botched, wreaking widespread damage to the Chiquitano Forest, the most intact dry tropical forest in the world today.
It documented how the companies had failed to prevent illegal hunting and logging along the pipeline route, leading to rapid deforestation in the region. They had also failed to provide some 38 Chiquitano and Ayoreo indigenous communities along the pipeline route with land titles or long-term compensation.
Despite the report, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) last week approved a 132-million-dollar loan to support another pipeline project linking southwestern Bolivia to Argentina.
While both the World Bank and the IDB required environmental studies, Williams told IPS he knew of no effort to consult with CGIAR regarding the potential impact of the construction on their research work. ''They may not have realised that such important wild peanut relatives occurred in the area,'' he said, adding that ''it's a pretty esoteric subject for most environmentalists and traditional biologists not involved in agricultural research''.
Besides wild peanuts, the region is also home to wild pineapples, wild chile peppers, and probably other wild food crop varieties, he said.
IPGRI is currently trying to help Bolivia document the occurrence and conservation status of its wild crop relatives so that they can be included in national conservation strategies, he added.
And Williams and the CGIAR consortium are pressing for permission to remove wild peanut samples for safekeeping as soon as possible. If the current ban is lifted, duplicate samples will be provided to Bolivian research organisations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and ICRISAT.