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No pickers, no coffee: How Covid threatens Colombia’s harvest

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For almost four decades the Santa Isabel estate has been growing coffee and roasting it on its premises with machines powered by water and coal.

But production could fall this year at the massive farm, which covers a steep mountain that is almost entirely carpeted with coffee bushes.

Coffee pickers have become harder to hire amid the coronavirus pandemic. Low prices for beans mean there is not much money to lure more workers by offering higher wages.

“If we cannot get more workers we could lose some of our crop,” says Ángel García, the farm’s manager. “The beans will fall and rot on the ground,” he explained, as a crew of about 50 workers made their way up a slope covered in 6ft-tall (1.8m) bushes.

Santa Isabel – which has 900,000 coffee bushes – is one of many farms in the Colombian province of Antioquia that is struggling with labour shortages this year.

The province, home to the city of Medellín, needs around 32,000 coffee pickers from other parts of the country each year to collect its harvest, which takes place between September and December.

But it currently has a deficit of 7,000 coffee pickers, according to Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers.

Similar labour shortages affected coffee farms in Costa Rica earlier this year.

More risk

Workers at the Santa Isabel farm say that fewer people are showing up because the job has become riskier.

“This place has workers that come from many different places,” said Luis Giraldo, a 40-year-old coffee picker.

“Even if you try to avoid contact with others, you really can’t,” he says, pointing to a group of a dozen workers who sit next to each other, chatting after having breakfast. None of them wore facemasks.

Mr Giraldo’s wife, Gloria Piedrahita, says she is happy to have a job. Her small clothing store in Medellín went broke earlier this year. But she also acknowledges there was a risk of getting infected with coronavirus.

“We have to sleep in dormitories here,” she explained. “And not all of the workers are careful.”

To prevent outbreaks and make the job safer for coffee pickers, farms in Colombia have taken bio-security measures that include adding hand-washing stations and temperature checks.

Some of the larger farms have also expanded their dormitories or added tents so that their workers are more spaced out, with their bunk beds now placed two metres apart.

But the measures have not attracted as many workers as farmers had hoped for, even though the unemployment rate in Colombia is about 50% higher than it was a year ago.

Empty trucks

Mr García says that his farm usually hires 500 temporary workers to harvest its coffee bushes in November, when beans are ready to be picked. This year he has only been able to get 200.

Cold and rainy weather has slowed down the pace at which coffee beans mature in many parts of Colombia this year. That has helped Santa Isabel to stave off major losses. But the farm is still actively recruiting people, before its beans fall to the ground.

“We are putting ads on the radio, we are sending out a truck into town with a megaphone on it, offering to bring workers to the farm,” Mr García explains. “The truck often comes back empty.”

José Álvaro Jaramillo, the Antioquia director for Colombia’s Coffee Growers Federation, says the labour shortages have been happening for several years now – though to a lesser extent – as better paying industries like highway construction and the illegal coca crop lure rural workers away from the coffee fields.

Physically demanding and little security

Coffee pickers in Colombia are paid about $0.15 (£0.11) for every kilogram of beans they collect. On a good day an experienced coffee picker can make around $30 a day, gathering 200kg of beans.

It is three times as much money as what a worker on the national minimum wage makes. But the job is physically demanding and does not provide a fixed income or health insurance.

Fernando Morales de La Cruz, an expert on the coffee industry who directs the Café for Change Initiative, says that labour shortages will continue to be a problem until “the business model on which the global coffee industry operates is changed”.

Mr Morales de la Cruz points out that coffee currently sells for around $2.40/kg in global markets, or less than what it was selling for in 1983, when coffee-growing nations stopped imposing export quotas.

He says that a few companies – including Starbucks and Nestle – are purchasing most of the coffee in the world and keeping prices low thanks to their bargaining power.

For wages to improve significantly in the industry, wholesale prices for coffee beans would have to hover around $12/kg, Mr Morales de la Cruz, who is also a human rights activist, says. He argues that this big hike in prices could be covered, partly, by charging consumers an additional 10 cents for every cup of coffee bought at cafes or restaurants.

‘We can’t let the coronavirus scare us’

Still even as growers struggle with low prices for their coffee, there are people willing to work for the modest wages on offer.

At the Santa Isabel farm many of the coffee pickers who turned out this year are Venezuelan migrants, who need to send money to relatives at home. In Venezuela, the monthly minimum wage is currently worth around $1.

“We can’t let the coronavirus scare us” said Rafael Avendaño, a 25-year-old Venezuelan worker who has been at the farm for a month.

He had been living on Colombia’s Caribbean coast for three years working as a motorcycle taxi driver, but the pandemic put him out of business. “I’m more afraid of rolling down one of these slopes than of the pandemic” he joked.

“For people like us the priority is to work.”

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55172034

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Mynor Padilla: Killer of anti-mining activist pleads guilty

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The ex-security chief at a mine in Guatemala, Mynor Padilla, has pleaded guilty to killing an anti-mining activist in 2009.

Adolfo Ich was killed at the Fénix mine, which was owned at the time by a subsidiary of Canadian mining giant Hudbay Minerals.

He had been campaigning against the mining project and for his community’s land rights.

Germán Chub, a bystander, was also shot, leaving him paralysed.

The guilty plea comes at a retrial after Padilla was cleared of murder at a previous trial.

What happened in September 2009?

The Fénix nickel project was owned by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), a subsidiary of Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals.

CGN wanted to develop the mine, but the indigenous Maya community objected, arguing that much of the company’s land belonged to them.

The company said it engaged in talks to negotiate their resettlement but members of the Maya community said they were threatened with forced evictions.

On 27 September 2009, security guards at the mine attacked members of the community with machetes and firearms, according to witnesses.

Adolfo Ich was killed, Germán Chub was left paralysed, and at least seven more people were injured.

What was Mynor Padilla’s role?

Mynor Padilla was the chief of security at the Fénix project and witnesses said he was the key man in the attack on 27 September 2009.

Hudbay defended its personnel, alleging that members of the Maya community had turned on each other and that their security staff had acted in self-defence.

Following a three-year murder trial Padilla was acquitted, much to the outrage of the victims’ families who launched an appeal.

What’s the latest?

The court of appeal overturned the acquittal and ordered a retrial which began in December 2020.

After having for years maintained his innocence, Mynor Padilla entered a guilty plea which was accepted by the court on Wednesday.

A lawyer for Adolfo Ich’s widow in a civil lawsuit against Hudbay Minerals in Canada called it a “momentous day”.

Why does it matter?

There are three civil lawsuits under way against Hudbay Minerals in Canada, in connection with the Fénix mine.

One of them was filed by Adolfo Ich’s widow, Angélica Choc, who alleges that the company failed to take adequate precautions to ensure that human rights abuses would not be perpetrated by Hudbay’s security personnel.

In 2013, a court in Ontario allowed the lawsuits to proceed, making it the first time that foreign claimants were allowed to pursue a lawsuit against a Canadian company in Canada for alleged human rights abuses.

Cory Wanless, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, said that following Mynor Padilla’s guilty plea “it will be difficult for Hudbay to continue to argue that it does not bear responsibility for the killing and shooting”.

Hudbay Minerals has released a statement saying it would “review the court’s decision once it is released”, which is due to happen later this month.

The company, which sold the Félix mine to Swiss-based Solway Group in 2011, also stated that “any agreements made in the Guatemalan court do not affect our view of the facts of Hudbay’s liability in relation to civil matters currently before the Ontario court”.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55573682

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Deepening divisions: Venezuela’s haves and have nots

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The Hotel Humboldt sits atop El Ávila, a national park overlooking Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

At more than 2,000m (6,500ft) above sea level, you have to take a 20-minute trip in a cable car to the top of the mountain to reach it.

From there, a golf buggy drives guests along the ridge to an impressive glass and aluminium structure surrounded most of the day by rolling clouds that suddenly clear to reveal the most astounding view.

The hotel was built in 1956. Finished in less than 200 days, it was the pet project of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who ruled Venezuela from 1950 to 1958.

At a time of great oil wealth, it was a show of pomp and modernity.

National icon

It operated as a hotel for just a few years before falling into disrepair, but it has remained an icon, one that the late President Hugo Chávez wanted to restore to its former glory. After his death in 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been intent on finalising the restoration.

“This building means so much for the Venezuelan people,” says Carlos Salas, one of the hotel’s managers.

He shows me around the hotel, which has just started accepting overnight guests after nine years of renovations.

“It’s a representation of a golden era for Venezuela.”

But that golden era is long gone.

The economy is in crisis, oil prices have slumped as has production and around 60% of Venezuelans now live in poverty, according to researchers at the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

Financially sound or a folly?

A stay at the Hotel Humboldt costs around $300 (£225) a night.

Clearly a lot of hard work has been put into restoring this architectural jewel but it is not your typical five-star lodgings. Indeed, the classification was awarded by the government which is promoting it, and the hotel is still a bit rough around the edges, despite having been inaugurated a month ago.

The Marriott hotel chain was given the concession to run it in 2018 but it did not stay long as partner. The team now in place is clearly proud of its achievements but in crisis-hit Venezuela, the hotel’s restoration feels like a folly, promoted by a president with his head buried in the sand.

“One banana here costs triple the price [elsewhere],” Mr Salas says, explaining the logistical challenges of getting supplies up the mountain to the hotel.

“My people here, we have to pay them more, the maintenance of the building, water, electricity, it’s really difficult.”

So what, I ask, is the demand for a hotel like this, in a country where the minimum wage is around $2 (£1.50) a month.

He responds without flinching, arguing that five-star hotels are not within everyone’s reach anywhere in the world. Venezuela is no different, he says.

Emerging elite

The hotel is seen by many as a symbol of the rise of a group of newly wealthy Venezuelans, in particular those who have become rich thanks to their close ties to the government.

And Hotel Humboldt is not the only sign of an economic revival in Venezuela.

Faced with US sanctions, rampant hyperinflation and a spiralling economic crisis, President Maduro responded by removing the price controls and easing the capital controls introduced by his predecessor and fellow socialist, Hugo Chávez.

With the local currency increasingly hard to come by due to the sky-high inflation rate – a cup of coffee with milk can set you back almost 1.5m bolivars in Caracas – Mr Maduro also begrudgingly accepted the use of the US dollar.

The result of this easing of economic restraints can be seen across Caracas, where new “bodegas” (shops) have opened up, selling all sorts of imported goods to people long-used to shortages of even the basics.

The Caracas stock exchange is another beneficiary, booming because of an uptick in private enterprise, although it is still comparatively small.

A brighter future?

It has made life a bit more bearable for many, especially in this toughest of years, but not everyone is positive about these changes.

“The government is building on the ashes of this wrecked economic model in a very disorganised fashion,” says economist Tamara Herrera.

“This re-accommodation of the economy is amorphous, disorganised and positive results are difficult to judge. This won’t mend the tragedy that you can see in the population,” she argues.

And there is no doubt that while there may be an emerging class of haves, there are still plenty of have nots – those with little or no access to dollars, or basic services.

In the poor neighbourhood of Catia, on the outskirts of Caracas, I met former housekeeper Diurka González, who is helping out in a soup kitchen. Every day, the kitchen provides lunches for as many as 140 children, including her two-year-old daughter.

“My boss couldn’t keep me on because she was scared of the pandemic,” Ms González tells me.

She did not even earn $2 a month, but now she gets nothing. The soup kitchen allows her daughter to eat one decent meal a day.

Hard realities

A few doors down, Jonathan Fermenal is feeding his two-year-old daughter Samara with the lunch they have just picked up from the soup kitchen. He relies on the free lunches for Samara and his other two children.

Mr Fermenal’s wife, Laila, left to find work in Colombia at the beginning of the year.

The plan was for the rest of the family to follow a few months later, but then came the coronavirus pandemic. They have not been able to see her since.

“At the beginning, it was horrible, horrible,” he says about his wife’s departure. “My youngest was 18 months old, she was still breastfeeding and had to stop suddenly. The first month, I didn’t sleep at all.”

Mr Fermenal has had to learn to play the role of both mother and father. “For my wife it’s also been hard, everything is done by Whatsapp, a photo here, a voice message there, but it’s not the same,” he says.

“And the way I live is how thousands and thousands of Venezuelan families are living,” says Mr Fermenal about the more than five million Venezuelans who have left to escape their home country’s economic hardships over the past six years.

Lives – and hardships – that are far more common than those who invested in the Hotel Humboldt would like to believe.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55364444

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Argentina abortion: Senate approves legalisation in historic decision

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Argentina’s Congress has legalised abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy, a ground-breaking move for a region that has some of the world’s most restrictive termination laws.

Senators voted in favour of the bill after a marathon session with 38 in favour, 29 against and one abstention.

Until now, abortions were only permitted in cases of rape or when the mother’s health was at risk.

The bill had been approved by the Chamber of Deputies earlier this month.

The Catholic Church, which remains highly influential in Latin America, had opposed the move, calling on senators to reject the bill supported by centre-left President Alberto Fernández.

Pro-choice activists hope the passing of the law in Argentina – one of the largest and most influential countries in the region – will inspire other countries to follow suit.

Large crowds of campaigners both for and against abortion had gathered outside Congress in the capital Buenos Aires, following the debate on huge screens.

When the vote finally happened in the early hours of Wednesday, there was jubilation in the pro-choice camp.

While Argentina’s powerful Catholic Church, and its growing evangelical community, put up strong opposition against this bill, it was Argentina’s mighty “green wave” women’s movement that has been at the forefront of this change.

A grassroots feminist movement that has grown in influence in the past few years, its campaigning prevailed, overturning a law that had been in place since 1921.

What has happened in Argentina has been closely watched across the region.

With Argentina now legalising abortion up to 14 weeks, activists in major neighbours like Chile and Brazil will no doubt use this precedent to help their cause in rewriting the law in their countries and allow broader reproductive rights in a region known for tough restrictions on abortion.

Long fought for change

Activists have campaigned for a change in the law for years. The passing came two years after senators narrowly voted against legalising abortion.

President Fernández had made reintroducing it one of his campaign promises. “I’m Catholic but I have to legislate for everyone,” he argued.

The president also said providing free and legal abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy was a matter of public health as “every year around 38,000 women” are taken to hospital due to clandestine terminations and that “since the restoration of democracy [in 1983] more than 3,000 have died”.

Alongside the legalisation of abortion, Senators also voted in favour of a bill dubbed the “1,000-Day Plan”, which will provide better healthcare for pregnant women and mothers of young children.

After the vote, President Fernández tweeted: “Today, we’re a better society, which widens women’s rights and guarantees public health.”

Vilma Ibarra, who drafted the law, was overcome with emotion as she spoke to reporters after it passed. “Never again will there be a woman killed in a clandestine abortion,” she said, crying.

Emotional debate

The vote had been predicted to be extremely tight but in the end, all four senators who had said they were undecided voted in favour of the legislation after a 12-hour debate.

Senator Silvina García Larraburu voted against the bill in 2018 but backed it this time. Speaking during the debate she said, coming close to tears: “My vote is in favour of free women, of women who can decide according to their own conscience.”

Anti-abortion activists, who followed the proceedings but were separated from pro-choice activists by barriers, were dejected.

“The interruption of a pregnancy is a tragedy. It abruptly ends another developing life,” said Inés Blas, a senator who voted against the law.

But Argentina’s Women’s Minister, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, said that “we’re making history” and many of the pro-choice activists said they hoped it would set a signal for other lawmakers across Latin America.

Abortions are completely banned in El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic and only allowed in certain restricted circumstances in most other Latin American nations.

In the wider region, only Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and parts of Mexico currently allow women to request an abortion, with varying limits on the number of weeks of pregnancy in which an abortion is legal.

The director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, said that he thought that the new law “could have a domino effect in the region”.

 

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55475036

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