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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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Coronavirus: What’s behind Latin America’s oxygen shortages?

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Before the clinic ran out of oxygen, Maria Auxiliadora da Cruz had been showing encouraging signs of progress against Covid-19. On 14 January, her oxygen levels had been above the normal level of 95% but, within hours of being deprived of that vital resource, her stats plummeted to 35%.

At this point, patients would normally be given intubation and oxygen by machine. Instead, the 67-year-old retired nurse died. “It was horrible,” her grieving daughter-in-law Thalita Rocha told the BBC. “It was a catastrophe. Many elderly patients began to deteriorate and turn blue.”

In an emotional video that went viral on social media, she described what was happening at Policlínica Redenção in the northern Brazilian city of Manaus. “We’re in a desperate situation. An entire emergency unit has simply run out of oxygen… A lot of people are dying.”

Brazil has the world’s second-highest Covid death toll with more than 221,000 fatalities. In Manaus, the health system has collapsed twice during the pandemic and deaths doubled between December and January.

Now there are fears the lack of oxygen supplies seen there could unfold elsewhere in Brazil and even in other parts of Latin America, where a second wave of Covid-19, in many countries, is proving to be worse than the first one.

In Peru, some hospitals have been unable to meet the demand brought by a steep rise in cases in recent weeks. As a result, patients’ relatives have had to hunt for oxygen in the black market. In some cases, they come back with nothing.

A black market is also thriving in Mexico, where more than 155,000 have died in the pandemic. To make things worse, there have been reports of thieves taking oxygen cylinders from hospitals and clinics.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) one in five Covid-19 patients will require oxygen. In severe cases, this rises to three in five. The organisation says some hospitals have seen demand for oxygen increase between five and seven times above normal levels because of the influx of patients with severe and critical disease.

The most dramatic situation in the world is in Brazil, where nearly 340,000 oxygen cylinders are needed every day, according to the Covid-19 Oxygen Needs tracker. The online tool helps estimate the scale of the challenge for policymakers and was developed by the Covid-19 Respiratory Care Response Coordination partnership which includes Path and Every Breath Counts.

Also according to the tracker, Mexico and Colombia each need more than 100,000 cylinders daily.

So how does a hospital run out of oxygen?

Oxygen has been considered an essential medicine by the WHO since 2017, but Lisa Smith, from Path’s market dynamics program, says ensuring adequate supply depends on many “components” falling into place.

This includes not only sources of production, but also training to enable medical staff to monitor and manage oxygen levels.1px transparent line

Medical oxygen is produced in large quantities at plants and delivered to hospitals in two ways: either in bulk in liquid tanks or as pressurised gas in cylinders containing smaller volumes.

Liquid oxygen is the cheapest and best technology available but it requires hospitals to have the right infrastructure to pipe oxygen to the patient’s bedside. This is common in developed countries such as the US and those in Europe.

Cylinders do not require pipes and can be delivered to clinics without a sophisticated infrastructure. However, their distribution on a smaller scale means they are less cost-effective, in addition to being cumbersome to transport and handle, which also carries an increased risk of cross-contamination.

Another source of production is on-site oxygen plants, which produce oxygen to be piped or compressed into cylinders. The WHO says it is currently trying to map how many such plants exist in the countries.

After Manaus reached crisis point, oxygen donations were sent from the federal government and other states – as the local providers said they were unable to increase production – and across the border from Venezuela. But even transporting them became a problem.

Jesem Orellana, an epidemiologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, said the risk of shortage continued and was exacerbated by global demand.

According to Path, medical oxygen accounts for just 5-10% of the world’s oxygen production. The rest is used in various industries, such as mining, chemical and pharmaceutical.

“We need to think about oxygen as much as we think about electricity, water or other essential utilities,” says Ms Smith. “This can’t be something that we’re only concerned about when it’s bad, because when it’s bad, people will die.”

In the meantime, there are concerns that the strain of Covid-19 on oxygen supplies could have a knock-on effect for the treatment of other diseases.

“Covid has shown us just how essential it is in countries where there is no vaccine against Covid, no medicines,” says Leith Greenslade, who leads the Every Breath Counts Coalition. “Often, it’s down to whether you get oxygen or not, whether you live or die.”

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55829424

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Honduran abortion law: Congress moves to set total ban ‘in stone’

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Parliament in Honduras has initially approved a bill that will make it virtually impossible to legalise abortion in the country.

The new measure will require at least three-quarters of Congress to vote in favour of modifying the abortion law, which is among the strictest in world.

Honduras forbids abortion under any circumstance, even rape or incest.

Its latest move comes in response to Argentina legalising abortion last month.

Across Latin America, there has been increased pro-choice campaigning, known as the “green wave”, based on the colour worn by protesters.

The new legislation in Honduras hinges on an article in the constitution that gives a fetus the same legal status of a person. Constitutional changes have until now been permitted with a two-thirds majority, but the new legislation raises that bar to three-quarters within the 128-member body.

The measure still needs to be ratified by a second vote. However, support was clear on Thursday: with 88 legislators voting in favour, 28 opposed and seven abstentions.

Honduras has a stanchly conservative majority, which referred to the measure as a “shield against abortion”.

“What they did was set this article in stone because we can never reform it if 96 votes are needed [out of 128]”, opposition MP Doris Gutiérrez told AFP news agency.

Mario Pérez, a lawmaker with the ruling party of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, formally proposed the change last week, calling it a “constitutional lock” to prevent any future moderations of the abortion law.

“Every human being has the right to life from the moment of conception,” said Mr Pérez.

Ahead of the vote, UN human rights experts condemned the move, saying in a statement: “This bill is alarming. Instead of taking a step towards fulfilling the fundamental rights of women and girls, the country is moving backwards.”

Abortion has been constitutionally banned in Honduras since 1982.

In 2017, lawmakers voted on decriminalising it in the case of rape, incest or when there was danger to the mother or the fetus, but the move was roundly rejected.

Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti also have complete bans on abortion, but Honduras is the only country to also prohibit the use of emergency contraceptives in all cases, including after rape.

Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and Argentina are the only Latin American countries to permit abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55764195

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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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