Mining giant Rio Tinto Face Environmental, Human Rights Complaint in Papua New Guinea

Active Citizens, Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Environment, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Natural Resources, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation

Contamination of rivers and streams by mine waste in the vicinity of the Panguna copper mine in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 4 2021 (IPS) – Local communities in the vicinity of the abandoned Panguna copper mine, have taken decisive action to hold the global mining multinational, Rio Tinto, accountable for alleged environmental and human rights violations during the mine’s operations between 1972 and 1989.


The mine operated in the mountains of central Bougainville in Papua New Guinea until 1989.

The complaint by 156 residents was lodged with the Australian Government in September by Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre and subsequently accepted in November, paving the way for a non-judicial mediation process.

“We and the communities we are working with have now entered into a formal conciliation process with Rio Tinto facilitated by the Australian OECD National Contact Point and talks with the company will begin very shortly,” Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne told IPS.

Rio Tinto was the majority owner of the Panguna mine through its operating company, Bougainville Copper Ltd, with a 53.8 percent stake. However, 17 years after it began production in 1972, anger among indigenous landowners about contaminated rivers and streams, the devastation of customary land and inequity in distributing the extractive venture’s profits and benefits triggered an armed rebellion in 1989. After the mine’s power supply was destroyed by sabotage, Rio Tinto fled Bougainville Island and the site became derelict during the decade long civil war which followed.

The mine area, which is still controlled by the tribal Mekamui Government of Unity, comprising former rebel leaders, hasn’t been decommissioned and the environmental legacy of its former operations never addressed.

Now, according to the complaint, “copper pollution from the mine pit and tailings continues to flow into local rivers … The Jaba-Kawerong river valley downstream of the mine resembles a moonscape with vast mounds of grey tailings waste and rock stretching almost 40 km downstream to the coast. Levees constructed at the time of the mine’s operation are now collapsing, threatening nearby villages.”

Gutted mine machinery and infrastructure are scattered across the site of the Panguna mine in the mountains of Central Bougainville, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

There are further claims that contamination of waterways and land is causing long-term health problems amongst the indigenous population, such as skin diseases, diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses, and pregnancy complications.

Helen Hakena, Director of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency in Bougainville’s main town of Buka, fully supports the action taken by her fellow islanders.

“It is long overdue. It is going to be very important because it was the big issue which caused the Bougainville conflict. It will lay to rest the grievances which caused so much suffering for our people,” Hakena told IPS.

The Bougainville civil war, triggered by the uprising at the mine, led to a death toll of 15,000-20,000 people.

The people of Bougainville believe that Rio Tinto has breached the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by failing both to take action to mitigate foreseeable environmental, health and safety-related impacts at the mine and respect the human rights of the communities affected by its extractive activities. The Human Rights Law Centre claims that “the mine pollution continues to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of these indigenous communities, including their rights to food, water, health, housing and an adequate standard of living.”

“While we do not wholly accept the claims in the complaint, we are aware of deteriorating mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas and acknowledge that there are environmental and human rights considerations,” Rio Tinto responded in a public statement.

“Accepting the AusNCP’s ‘good offices’ shows that we take this complaint seriously and remain ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant communities around the Panguna mine site, and other relevant parties, such as Bougainville Copper Ltd, the Autonomous Bougainville Government and PNG Government,” the statement continued.

In 2016, Rio Tinto divested its interest in Bougainville Copper Ltd, the operating company, and its shares were acquired by the PNG and Bougainville governments. Simultaneously, the corporate giant announced that it rejected corporate responsibility for any environmental impacts or damage.

Panguna mine’s copper and gold await political settlement before extraction can resume. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Mineral exploration in Bougainville in the 1960s, followed by the construction of the Panguna open-cut copper mine, occurred when the island region was under Australian administration. It would subsequently become a massive source of internal revenue Papua New Guinea, which was granted Independence in 1975. During its lifetime, the Panguna mine generated about US$2 billion in revenue and accounted for 44 percent of the nation’s exports.

The mining agreement negotiated between the Australian Government and Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia in the 1960s didn’t include any significant environmental regulations or liability of the company for rehabilitation of areas affected by mining.

There has been no definitive environmental assessment of the Panguna site since it was forced to shut down. However, about 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated at the mine every day. In 1989, an independent report by Applied Geology Associates in New Zealand noted that significant amounts of copper and other heavy metals were leaching from the mine and waste rock dumps and flowing into the Kawerong River. Today, the water in some rivers and streams in the mine area is a luminescent blue, a sign of copper contamination.

Bougainville residents’ action comes at the end of a challenging year for Rio Tinto. It is still reeling from revelations earlier this year that its operations destroyed historically significant Aboriginal sacred sites, estimated to be 46,000 years old, in the vicinity of its iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The company’s CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, has subsequently resigned.

Nevertheless, Adams is optimistic about the corporate giant’s willingness to engage with Bougainville and PNG stakeholders.

“In the first instance, we hope that this non-judicial process will help to facilitate discussions to explore whether Rio Tinto will make these commitments to address the impacts of its operations. If not, then the communities will be asking the Australian OECD National Contact Point to investigate the complaint and make findings about whether Rio Tinto has breached its human rights and environmental obligations,” the Human Rights Law Centre’s Legal Director said. A full investigation, if required, could take up to a year.

Ultimately, the islanders are seeking specific outcomes. These include Rio Tinto’s serious engagement with them to identify solutions to the urgent environmental and human rights issues; funding for an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine; and contributions to a substantial independently managed fund to enable long term rehabilitation programs.

Otherwise, Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre predicts that “given the limited resources of the PNG and Bougainville governments, it is almost inevitable that if no action is taken by Rio Tinto, the environmental damage currently being caused by the tailings waste will continue and worsen.”

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Agriculture for Development

Civil Society, Food & Agriculture

Sep 21 2020 –  

Special Issue on the contributions of non-governmental organisations and civil society
to agricultural and rural development

– Involving local communities in setting the agricultural development agenda
– Ten years of opportunities to improve the lives of family farmers
– BRAC’s contributions to agricultural development
– Updated data sets for more efficient investment strategies for family farms
– Can food production keep up with population increase in Malawi?

– Northern civil society in agriculture in the South: a failure?
– A systems approach to unlock the potential of African agriculture
– Promoting biodiversity and livelihoods through community forest restoration
– Introducing the new Chair of TAA
– Alternative livelihoods in an opium-based agricultural economy
– News from NGO institutional members

Source: ‘Agriculture for Development’ journal

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Semiarid Regions of Latin America Cooperate to Adapt to Climate

Civil Society, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Green Economy, Headlines, Integration and Development Brazilian-style, Latin America & the Caribbean, Projects, Regional Categories, South-South, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation

Combating Desertification and Drought

A rural settlement in the state of Pernambuco, in Brazil's semiarid ecoregion. Tanks that collect rainwater from rooftops for drinking water and household usage have changed life in this parched land, where 1.1 million 16,000-litre tanks have been installed so far. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

A rural settlement in the state of Pernambuco, in Brazil’s semiarid ecoregion. Tanks that collect rainwater from rooftops for drinking water and household usage have changed life in this parched land, where 1.1 million 16,000-litre tanks have been installed so far. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 27 2020 (IPS) – After centuries of poverty, marginalisation from national development policies and a lack of support for positive local practices and projects, the semiarid regions of Latin America are preparing to forge their own agricultural paths by sharing knowledge, in a new and unprecedented initiative.


In Brazil’s semiarid Northeast, the Gran Chaco Americano, which is shared by Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, and the Central American Dry Corridor (CADC), successful local practices will be identified, evaluated and documented to support the design of policies that promote climate change-resilient agriculture in the three ecoregions.

This is the objective of DAKI-Semiárido Vivo, an initiative financed by the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by the Brazilian Semiarid Articulation (ASA), the Argentinean Foundation for Development in Justice and Peace (Fundapaz) and the National Development Foundation (Funde) of El Salvador.

DAKI stands for Dryland Adaptation Knowledge Initiative.

The project, launched on Aug. 18 in a special webinar where some of its creators were speakers, will last four years and involve 2,000 people, including public officials, rural extension agents, researchers and small farmers. Indirectly, 6,000 people will benefit from the training.

“The aim is to incorporate public officials from this field with the intention to influence the government’s actions,” said Antonio Barbosa, coordinator of DAKI-Semiárido Vivo and one of the leaders of the Brazilian organisation ASA.

The idea is to promote programmes that could benefit the three semiarid regions, which are home to at least 37 million people – more than the total populations of Chile, Ecuador and Peru combined.

The residents of semiarid regions, especially those who live in rural areas, face water scarcity aggravated by climate change, which affects their food security and quality of life.

Zulema Burneo, International Land Coalition coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean and moderator of the webinar that launched the project, stressed that the initiative was aimed at “amplifying and strengthening” isolated efforts and a few longstanding collectives working on practices to improve life in semiarid areas.

Abel Manto, an inventor of technologies that he uses on his small farm in the state of Bahia, in Brazil's semiarid ecoregion, holds up a watermelon while standing among the bean crop he is growing on top of an underground dam. The soil is on a waterproof plastic tarp that keeps near the surface the water that is retained by an underground dam. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Abel Manto, an inventor of technologies that he uses on his small farm in the state of Bahia, in Brazil’s semiarid ecoregion, holds up a watermelon while standing among the bean crop he is growing on top of an underground dam. The soil is on a waterproof plastic tarp that keeps near the surface the water that is retained by an underground dam. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

The practices that represent the best knowledge of living in the drylands will be selected not so much for their technical aspects, but for the results achieved in terms of economic, ecological and social development, Barbosa explained to IPS in a telephone interview from the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, where the headquarters of ASA are located.

After the process of systematisation of the best practices in each region is completed, harnessing traditional knowledge through exchanges between technicians and farmers, the next step will be “to build a methodology and the pedagogical content to be used in the training,” he said.

One result will be a platform for distance learning. The Federal Rural University of Pernambuco, also in Recife, will help with this.

Decentralised family or community water supply infrastructure, developed and disseminated by ASA, a network of 3,000 social organisations scattered throughout the Brazilian Northeast, is a key experience in this process.

In the 1.03 million square kilometres of drylands where 22 million Brazilians live, 38 percent in rural areas according to the 2010 census, 1.1 million rainwater harvesting tanks have been built so far for human consumption.

An estimated 350,000 more are needed to bring water to the entire rural population in the semiarid Northeast, said Barbosa.

But the most important aspect for agricultural development involves eight “technologies” for obtaining and storing water for crops and livestock. ASA, created in 1999, has helped install this infrastructure on 205,000 farms for this purpose and estimates that another 800 peasant families still need it.

There are farms that are too small to install the infrastructure, or that have other limitations, said Barbosa, who coordinates ASA’s One Land and Two Waters and native seed programmes.

The “calçadão” technique, where water runs down a sloping concrete terrace or even a road into a tank that has a capacity to hold 52,000 litres, is the most widely used system for irrigating vegetables.

A group of peasant farmers from El Salvador stand in front of one of the two rainwater tanks built in their village, La Colmena, in the municipality of Candelaria de la Frontera. The pond is part of a climate change adaptation project in the Central American Dry Corridor. Central American farmers like these and others from Brazil's semiarid Northeast have exchanged experiences on solutions for living with lengthy droughts. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

A group of peasant farmers from El Salvador stand in front of one of the two rainwater tanks built in their village, La Colmena, in the municipality of Candelaria de la Frontera. The pond is part of a climate change adaptation project in the Central American Dry Corridor. Central American farmers like these and others from Brazil’s semiarid Northeast have exchanged experiences on solutions for living with lengthy droughts. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

And in Argentina’s Chaco region, 16,000-litre drinking water tanks are mushrooming.

But tanks for intensive and small farming irrigation are not suitable for the dry Chaco, where livestock is raised on large estates of hundreds of hectares, said Gabriel Seghezzo, executive director of Fundapaz, in an interview by phone with IPS from the city of Salta, capital of the province of the same name, one of those that make up Argentina’s Gran Chaco region.

“Here we need dams in the natural shallows and very deep wells; we have a serious water problem,” he said. “The groundwater is generally of poor quality, very salty or very deep.”

First, peasants and indigenous people face the problem of formalising ownership of their land, due to the lack of land titles. Then comes the challenge of access to water, both for household consumption and agricultural production.

“In some cases there is the possibility of diverting rivers. The Bermejo River overflows up to 60 km from its bed,” he said.

Currently there is an intense local drought, which seems to indicate a deterioration of the climate, urgently requiring adaptation and mitigation responses.

Reforestation and silvopastoral systems are good alternatives, in an area where deforestation is “the main conflict, due to the pressure of the advance of soy and corn monoculture and corporate cattle farming,” he said.

Mariano Barraza of the Wichí indigenous community (L) and Enzo Romero, a technician from the Fundapaz organisation, stand next to the tank built to store rainwater in an indigenous community in the province of Salta, in the Chaco ecoregion of northern Argentina, where there are six months of drought every year. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

Mariano Barraza of the Wichí indigenous community (L) and Enzo Romero, a technician from the Fundapaz organisation, stand next to the tank built to store rainwater in an indigenous community in the province of Salta, in the Chaco ecoregion of northern Argentina, where there are six months of drought every year. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

More forests would be beneficial for the water, reducing evaporation that is intense due to the heat and hot wind, he added.

Of the “technologies” developed in Brazil, one of the most useful for other semiarid regions is the “underground dam,” Claus Reiner, manager of IFAD programmes in Brazil, told IPS by phone from Brasilia.

The underground dam keeps the surrounding soil moist. It requires a certain amount of work to dig a long, deep trench along the drainage route of rainwater, where a plastic tarp is placed vertically, causing the water to pool during rainy periods. A location is chosen where the natural layer makes the dam impermeable from below.

This principle is important for the Central American Dry Corridor, where “the great challenge is how to infiltrate rainwater into the soil, in addition to collecting it for irrigation and human consumption,” said Ismael Merlos of El Salvador, founder of Funde and director of its Territorial Development Area.

The CADC, which cuts north to south through Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, is defined not as semiarid, but as a sub-humid region, because it rains slightly more there, although in an increasingly irregular manner.

Some solutions are not viable because “75 percent of the farming areas in the Corridor are sloping land, unprotected by organic material, which makes the water run off more quickly into the rivers,” Merlos told IPS by phone from San Salvador.

“In addition, the large irrigation systems that we’re familiar with are not accessible for the poor because of their high cost and the expensive energy for the extraction and pumping of water, from declining sources,” he said.

The most viable alternative, he added, is making better use of rainwater, by building tanks, or through techniques to retain moisture in the soil, such as reforestation and leaving straw and other harvest waste on the ground rather than burning it as peasant farmers continue to do.

“Harmful weather events, which four decades ago occurred one to three times a year, now happen 10 or more times a year, and their effects are more severe in the Dry Zone,” Merlos pointed out.

Funde is a Salvadoran centre for development research and policy formulation that together with Fundapaz, four Brazilian organisations forming part of the ASA network and seven other Latin American groups had been cooperating since 2013, when they created the Latin American Semiarid Platform.

The Platform paved the way for the DAKI-Semiárido Vivo which, using 78 percent of its two million dollar budget, opened up new horizons for synergy among Latin America’s semiarid ecoregions. To this end, said Burneo, it should create a virtuous alliance of “good practices and public policies.”

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‘One CGIAR’ with Two Tiers of Influence? The Case for a Real Restructuring of Global Ag-Research Centres

Civil Society, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Food & Agriculture, Global, Headlines, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

This is an abridged version of an open letter by IPES-Food to the CGIAR on 21 July 2020.

Agroecological systems, which build resilience through crop/species diversity and natural synergies across the whole agro-ecosystem, are showing major potential. Credit: (C. Perodeaud, 2018)

BRUSSELS , Jul 22 2020 (IPS) – While the ‘CGIAR System’ may sound like a technocratic body, few organizations have exerted as much influence on today’s food systems as this network of global agricultural research centres. Since its inception at the height of the ‘Green Revolution’ in 1971, the CGIAR has driven advances in crop breeding and agricultural mechanization and modernization across multiple continents. Its mission – to develop knowledge and innovation for agriculture in the global South – is as relevant today as ever, in light of climate change, COVID-19 and a host of additional challenges.


The process now underway to reform the CGIAR is therefore of major public interest. The ‘One CGIAR’ process seeks to merge the CGIAR’s 15 legally-independent centres, headquartered in 15 countries, into one legal entity. The impetus has come from some of its biggest funders, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and the US and UK governments.

Reform of the CGIAR is long overdue. However, we are concerned that the current reform process, like previous versions, will fall short of the fundamental change that is required, and risks exacerbating major power imbalances in global agricultural development.

Firstly, the restructuring appears to have been advanced in a coercive manner, and without genuine buy-in from the global South. A ‘carrot and stick’ approach has been adopted: an increase in the overall CGIAR budget has been promised if the merger goes through, while centres resisting the move have allegedly been threatened with budget cuts. Insiders say that representatives from governments and agricultural institutes in the global South – the much-touted beneficiaries of the CGIAR and the Green Revolution – are generally against the merger, while the big funders and closely-affiliated scientific institutions are in favour. The two centres voting against the merger last week were the forest and agroforestry centres headquartered in Indonesia and Kenya respectively.

Secondly, there is insufficient diversity among the inner circle driving forward CGIAR reform. In the mid-1990s, when the CGIAR underwent an earlier restructuring, men from just four countries – the US, the UK, Canada and Australia – accounted for 85% of board chairs and directors. The CGIAR has subsequently made efforts to improve gender balance, and to bring on staff and board members from the global South. However, a true diversity of perspectives is still missing: many of those recruited have close associations with Northern universities and donor-led partnerships, while the voices of farmers, civil society and independent researchers in the global South are still largely absent. Only 7 of the 22 members of the CGIAR System Reference Group (SRG) – responsible for managing the transition process – are from the global South, of which two are already affiliated to CGIAR centres.

Thirdly, the proposed restructuring fails to equip CGIAR for the urgently-needed paradigm shift in food systems. Business-as-usual approaches to agricultural development are failing to address hunger and improve the livelihoods of smallholders, as shown by the shortcomings of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Meanwhile, agroecological systems, which build resilience through crop/species diversity and natural synergies across the whole agro-ecosystem, are showing major potential – as recognized by the World Bank-led global agriculture assessment (‘IAASTD’), IPBES, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and a July 2020 statement by 366 scientists. The CGIAR has taken some steps towards systemic approaches, particularly through the work of some of its centres on participatory plant breeding, farmer-managed seed systems, varietal and species diversification for nutrition and resilience, biological control and agroforestry. But it has failed to mainstream these approaches: a 2017 study concluded that the “CGIAR environment was not conducive to implementing systems research”. Recent analysis by Biovision and IPES-Food found that, on average, CGIAR research programmes meet less than 20% of the indicators of systemic agroecological research.

While the basic shortcomings have been acknowledged in the current reform process, the CGIAR’s underlying philosophy does not appear to have shifted. The focus remains on scientific innovations being “deployed faster, at a larger scale, and at a reduced cost”, and provided to rather than developed with beneficiaries. By ushering in a single board with new agenda-setting powers, the restructuring may further reduce the autonomy of regional research agendas and reinforce the grip of the most powerful donors – many of whom have proven reluctant to diverge from the Green Revolution pathway.

Underlying all three of these problems is the disproportionate power of a handful of actors to control the purse strings and set the global agricultural development agenda. This reality risks undermining and short-circuiting the significant efforts to consult stakeholders over the past year.

It is therefore crucial to consider how these risks can be averted as the restructuring process moves forward, and to open a discussion on fundamental reform of the CGIAR. In order to rebuild its legitimacy and relevance, the CGIAR must: diversify its governance; put at centre stage the views of farmers, researchers, civil society groups, and governments in the global South; support transformative, transdisciplinary, agroecological research co-led by farmers and farmer organisations; collaborate with a broad network of regional, sub-regional and national research centres and universities to strengthen autonomous research capacity in the global South; and participate alongside the Rome-based agencies (FAO, IFAD, WFP) in the Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

Ultimately, the CGIAR system should mirror the food system we need: decentralized, context-specific, agroecological, and with more distributed and equal power relations.

*The IPES-Food expert panel: Olivier De Schutter (Co-chair), Olivia Yambi (Co-chair), Bina Agarwal, Molly Anderson, Million Belay, Nicolas Bricas, Joji Carino, Jennifer Franco, Mamadou Goïta, Emile Frison, Steve Gliessman, Hans Herren, Phil Howard, Melissa Leach, Lim Li Ching, Desmond McNeill, Pat Mooney, Raj Patel, P.V. Satheesh, Maryam Rahmanian, Cécilia Rocha, Johan Rockstrom, Ricardo Salvador, Laura Trujillo-Ortega, Paul Uys, Nettie Wiebe, Yan Hairong.

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Coronavirus Hasn´t Slowed Down Ecological Women Farmers in Peru’s Andes Highlands

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Gender, Green Economy, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Regional Categories, Special Report, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Economy

Women & Economy

Quechua indigenous farmers from the town of Huasao, in the Andes highlands of Peru, cut insect repellent plants in front of Juana Gallegos' house, while others prepare the biol mixture, a liquid organic fertiliser that they use on their vegetable crops. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

Quechua indigenous farmers from the town of Huasao, in the Andes highlands of Peru, cut insect repellent plants in front of Juana Gallegos’ house, while others prepare the biol mixture, a liquid organic fertiliser that they use on their vegetable crops. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

HUASAO, Peru, May 6 2020 (IPS) – It’s eight o’clock in the morning and Pascuala Ninantay is carrying two large containers of water in her wheelbarrow to prepare with neighbouring women farmers 200 litres of organic fertiliser, which will then be distributed to fertilise their crops, in this town in the Andes highlands of Peru.


“We grow healthy, nutritious food without chemicals,” she tells IPS, describing the sustainable agriculture she practices in Huasao, a town of about 1,500 people in Quispicanchi province, 3,300 metres above sea level, in the department of Cuzco in south-central Peru.

It will take them four hours to prepare the “biol”, a liquid fertiliser composed of natural inputs contributed by the local farmers as part of a collective work tradition of the Quechua indigenous people, to which most of the inhabitants of Huasao and neighbouring highlands villages in the area belong.

“Between all of us we bring the different ingredients, but we were short on water so I went to the spring to fill my ‘galoneras’ (multi-gallon containers),” explains Ninantay.

The women, gathered at the home of Juana Gallegos, work in community. While some gather insect repellent plants like nettles and muña (Minthostachys mollis, an Andes highlands plant), others prepare the huge plastic drum where they will make the mixture that includes ash and fresh cattle dung.

They keep working until the container is filled with 200 litres of the fertiliser which, after two months of fermentation in the sealed drum, will be distributed among them equally.

Making organic fertiliser is one of the agro-ecological practices that Ninantay and 15 of her neighbours have adopted to produce food that is both beneficial to health and adapted to climate change.

They are just a few of the almost 700,000 women who, according to official figures, are engaged in agricultural activities in Peru, and who play a key role in the food security and sovereignty of their communities, despite the fact that they do so under unequal conditions because they have less access to land, water management and credit than men.

That is the view of Elena Villanueva, a sociologist with the Flora Tristán Centre for Peruvian Women, a non-governmental organisation that for the past two years has been promoting women’s rights and technical training among small-scale women farmers in Huasao and six other areas of the region, with support from two institutions in Spain’s Basque Country: the Basque Development Cooperation agency and the non-governmental Mugen Gainetik.

“During this time we have seen how much power the 80 women we have supported have gained as a result of their awareness of their rights and their use of agro-ecological techniques. In a context of marked machismo (sexism), they are gaining recognition for their work, which was previously invisible,” she told IPS.

A group of women farmers are ready to head out to the plots they farm on the community lands outside of Huasao, a rural town in Peru's Andes highlands department of Cuzco. They are wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, because they depend on their production for food and income from the sale of the surplus, to cover their household expenses. CREDIT: Nayda Quispe/IPS

A group of women farmers are ready to head out to the plots they farm on the community lands outside of Huasao, a rural town in Peru’s Andes highlands department of Cuzco. They are wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, because they depend on their production for food and income from the sale of the surplus, to cover their household expenses. CREDIT: Nayda Quispe/IPS

This group of women farmers is convinced of the need for nutritious food that does not harm people’s health or nature, and they are happy to do their small part to make that happen.

“We want to have a variety of food constantly available, but taking care of our soil, water, plants, trees and air,” says Ninantay.

“We no longer use chemicals,” says Gallegos. “Thanks to the training we have received, we understood how the soil and our crops had become so dependent on those substances, we thought that only by using them would we have a good yield. But no, with our own fertilisers we grow lettuce, tomatoes, chard, artichokes, radishes and all our big, beautiful, tasty vegetables. Everything is organic.”

Once they were producing their fresh produce using agro-ecological techniques, the women decided to also begin growing their staple crops of potatoes and corn organically. “I see that the plants are happier and the leaves are greener now that I fertilise them naturally,” says Ninantay.

Villanueva says these decisions on what to plant and how to do it contribute to new forms of agricultural production that meet the food needs of the women and their families while also contributing to the sustainable development of their communities.

“With agro-ecology they enrich their knowledge about the resistance of crops to climate change, they carry out integrated management of pests and diseases, and they have tools to improve their production planning,” she explains.

And even more important, “this process raises their self-esteem and strengthens their sense of being productive citizens because they are aware that they are taking care of biodiversity, diversifying their crops and increasing their yields,” she adds.

Thanks to this, these peasant women are obtaining surpluses that they now market.

Three times a week, Ninantay and the other women set up their stall in Huasao’s main square where they sell their products to the local population and to tourists who come in search of local healers, famous for their fortune telling and cures, which draw on traditional rituals and ceremonies.

The agro-ecological women farmers set up their stall three times a week in the main square of the rural municipality of Huasao to sell lettuce, tomatoes, Chinese onions, radish and other fresh produce. They are now marketing their wares in compliance with the health regulations put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, for which they have received training from the municipal authorities. CREDIT: Nayda Quispe/IPS

The agro-ecological women farmers set up their stall three times a week in the main square of the rural municipality of Huasao to sell lettuce, tomatoes, Chinese onions, radish and other fresh produce. They are now marketing their wares in compliance with the health regulations put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, for which they have received training from the municipal authorities. CREDIT: Nayda Quispe/IPS

Coronavirus alters local dynamics

However, the measures implemented by the central government on Mar. 15 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced trade, by not allowing outsiders to visit Huasao, known locally as “the village of the witchdoctors” because of its healers.

But the work in the fields has not stopped; on the contrary, the women are working harder than ever.

“We used to have the income of my husband who worked in the city, but because of the state of emergency he can no longer leave,” says Ninantay. “My fellow women farmers are in the same boat, so we continue to harvest and sell in the square and what we earn goes to buying medicines, masks, bleach and other things for the home.”

Initially, she says, the husbands didn’t want their wives to participate in the project and stay overnight away from home to attend the training workshops. But after they saw the money they were saving on food and the income the women were earning, “they now recognise that our work is important.”

Their husbands, like most Huasao men, do not work in the fields. They work in construction or services in the city of Cuzco, about 20 km away, or migrate seasonally to mining regions in search of a better income.

So the community lands, where each family has usufruct rights on three-hectare plots, were left in the hands of women, even though the title is usually held by the men. With the opportunity offered by the Flora Tristán project, they have increased their harvests and are no longer merely subsistence farmers but earn an income as well.

Despite the pandemic, the women obtained permission from the authorities and received training on the care and prevention measures to be followed in order to market their products under conditions that are safe for them and their customers.

Their stall at the open-air market in the town’s main square is already known for offering healthy food, and on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays they run out of vegetables and other products they offer. They also sell their wares in other fairs and markets.

Their stall in the municipal market is also seen as an alternative to return to more natural foods in the face of the increasing change in eating patterns in rural areas.

“Many people don’t want to eat quinoa or ‘oca’ (Oxalis tuberosa, an Andean tuber), they prefer noodles or rice,” says Ninantay. “Children fill up on sweets and junk food and they are not getting good nutrition, and that’s not right. We have to educate people about healthy eating if we want strong new generations.”

She stresses the importance of people understanding that nature, “Mother Earth”, must be respected.

“We have to recover the wisdom of our ancestors, of our grandmothers, to take care of everything that we need to live,” she warns. “If we do not do this, our grandchildren and their children will not have water to drink, seeds to plant, or food to eat.”

Flora Tristán’s Villanueva announced that the 80 women farmers in the programme would participate in initiatives for the recovery of agricultural and water harvesting practices based on forestation and infiltration ditches, using native trees known as chachacomas (Escallonia resinosa) and queñuas (Polylepis).

The women hope that their experience and knowledge will be extended on a large scale, because although they share with their families, neighbours and relatives what they are learning, they believe that the authorities should help expand these practices.

“We would like not only Huasao, but all of Cuzco to be an agro-ecological region, so that we can help nature and guarantee healthy food for the families of the countryside and the city,” says Gallegos, convinced that if they could do it, everyone can.

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Coronavirus, New Threat for Mexican Migrant Workers in the U.S.

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Global Governance, Globalisation, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, North America, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations

Migration & Refugees

Considered essential to the U.S. economy, as Donald Trump himself now acknowledges, Mexico's seasonal farmworkers are exposed to the coronavirus pandemic as they work in U.S. fields, which exacerbates violations of their rights, such as wage theft, fraud, and other abuses. CREDIT: Courtesy of MHP Salud

Considered essential to the U.S. economy, as Donald Trump himself now acknowledges, Mexico’s seasonal farmworkers are exposed to the coronavirus pandemic as they work in U.S. fields, which exacerbates violations of their rights, such as wage theft, fraud, and other abuses. CREDIT: Courtesy of MHP Salud

MEXICO CITY, Apr 21 2020 (IPS) – As the high season for agricultural labour in the United States approaches, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico are getting ready to head to the fields in their northern neighbour to carry out the work that ensures that food makes it to people’s tables.


But the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic, of which the U.S. has become the world’s largest source of infection, threatens to worsen the already precarious conditions in which these workers plant, harvest, process and move fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

Exposed to illegal charges for visa, transport and accommodation costs, labour exploitation, lack of access to basic services and unhealthy housing, Mexican seasonal workers driven from their homes by poverty must also now brave the risk of contagion.

Evy Peña, director of communications and development at the non-governmental Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Migrant Rights Centre – CDM), told IPS from the city of Monterrey that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating violations of the rights of migrant workers.

“Temporary visa programmes are rife with abuse, from the moment workers are recruited in their communities. They suffer fraud, they are offered jobs that don’t even exist in the United States. It’s a perverse system in which recruiters and employers have all the control. There are systemic flaws that will become more evident now,” the activist said.

In 1943, the United States created H2 visas for unskilled foreign workers, and in the 1980s it established H-2A categories for farm workers and H-2B categories for other work, such as landscaping, construction and hotel staff.

In 2019, Washington, which had already declared them “essential” to the economy, granted 191,171 H-2A and 73,557 H-2B visas to Mexican workers, and by January and February of this year had issued 27, 058 and 6,238, respectively.

Two emergencies converge

Now, the two countries are negotiating to send thousands of farmworkers within or outside of the H2 programme, starting this month, to ensure this year’s harvest in the U.S. The Mexican government has polled experts to determine the viability of the plan, IPS learned.

The migrant workers would come from Michoacan, Oaxaca, Zacatecas and the border states. The plan would put leftist President Andres Manuel López Obrador in good standing with his right-wing counterpart, Donald Trump; generate employment for rural workers in the midst of an economic crisis; and boost remittances to rural areas.

For his part, Trump, forced by a greater need for rural workers in the face of the pandemic and under pressure from agriculture, abandoned his anti-immigrant policy and on Apr. 1 even issued a call for the arrival of Mexican migrant workers.

“We want them to come in,” he said. “They’ve been there for years and years, and I’ve given the commitment to the farmers: They’re going to continue to come.”

U.S. authorities can extend H-2A visas for up to one year and the maximum period of stay is three years. After that, the holder must remain outside U.S. territory for at least three months to qualify for re-entry with the same permit.

On Apr. 15, Washington announced temporary changes allowing workers to switch employers and to stay longer than three years.

A Mexican migrant worker works at a vineyard in California, one of the U.S. states most dependent on seasonal labour from Mexico in agriculture, and which has now urged President Donald Trump to facilitate the arrival of guest workers from that country so crops are not lost. CREDIT: Kau Sirenio/En el Camino

A Mexican migrant worker works at a vineyard in California, one of the U.S. states most dependent on seasonal labour from Mexico in agriculture, and which has now urged President Donald Trump to facilitate the arrival of guest workers from that country so crops are not lost. CREDIT: Kau Sirenio/En el Camino

The most numerous jobs are in fruit harvesting, general agricultural work such as planting and harvesting, and on tobacco plantations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Migrant workers traditionally come from Mexican agricultural and border states and their main destinations are agricultural areas where there is a temporary or permanent shortage of labourers.

Jeremy McLean, policy and advocacy manager for the New York-based non-governmental organisation Justice in Motion, expressed concern about the conditions in which migrants work.

The way the system works, “it’s not going to be easy to follow recommendations for social distancing. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to come and won’t be able to follow these recommendations, and they will put themselves at risk. It could spell another wave of infection and transmission,” he warned IPS.

“This population group has no health services and no medical insurance. If they fall ill in a remote area, what help can they get?” he said from New York.

On Mar. 26, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico reported that it would process without a personal interview the applications of those whose visas had expired in the previous two years or who had not received them in that time, under pressure from U.S. agribusiness.

Trapped with no way out

The migrant workers’ odyssey begins in Mexico, where they are recruited by individual contractors – workers or former workers of a U.S. employer, fellow workers, relatives or friends, in their hometowns – or by private U.S. agencies.

Although article 28 of Mexico’s Federal Labour Law, in force since 1970 and overhauled in 2019, regulates the provision of services by workers hired within Mexico for work abroad, it is not enforced.

It requires that contracts be registered with the labour authorities and that a bond be deposited to guarantee compliance. It also holds the foreign contractor responsible for the costs of transport, repatriation, food for the worker and immigration, as well as the payment of full wages, compensation for occupational hazards and access to adequate housing.

In addition, it states that Mexican workers are entitled to social security benefits for foreigners in the country where they are offering their services.

Although the Mexican government could enforce article 28 of the law in order to safeguard the rights of migrant workers who enter and leave the United States under the visa programme, it has failed to do so.

In its recent report “Ripe for Reform: Abuse of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program”, the bi-national CDM organisation reveals that migrant workers experience wage theft, health and safety violations, discrimination, and harassment as part of a human trafficking system.

Recruitment without oversight

For Mayela Blanco, a researcher at the non-governmental Centre for Studies in International Cooperation and Public Management, the problem is the lack of monitoring or inspections of recruiters and agencies.

“In Mexico there are still many gaps in the mechanisms for monitoring and inspecting recruitment. There is still fraud,” she told IPS. “How often do they inspect? How do they guarantee that things are working the way they’re supposed to?”

There are 433 registered placement agencies in the country, distributed in different states, according to data from the National Employment Service. For the transfer of labour abroad, there are nine – a small number considering the tens of thousands of visas issued in 2019.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Labor reports 239 licenced recruiters in that nation working for a handful of U.S. companies.

Data obtained by IPS indicates that Mexico’s Ministry of Labour only conducted 91 inspections in nine states from 2009 to 2019 and imposed 12 fines for a total of around 153,000 dollars. Some states with high levels of migrant workers were never visited by inspectors.

Furthermore, the records of the federal labour board do not contain any reports of violations of article 28.

Mexico is a party to the Fee-Charging Employment Agencies Convention 96 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which it violates due to non-compliance with the rights of temporary workers.

Peña stressed that there is still a gap between the U.S. and Mexico in labour protection and said workers are being left behind because of that gap.

“Countries like Mexico see temporary visas as a solution to labour migration and allow the exploitation of their citizens. The H2 programme is about labour migration and governments forget that bilateral solutions are needed,” she said.

In response to the pandemic and its risks, 37 organisations called on the U.S. government on Mar. 25 for adequate housing with quarantine facilities, safe transportation, testing for workers before they arrive in the United States, physical distancing on farms and paid treatment for those infected with COVID-19.

Blanco emphasised the lack of justice and reparation mechanisms. “The more visas issued, the greater the need for oversight. Mexico is perceived as a country of return or transit of migrants, but it should be recognised as a place of origin of temporary workers. And that is why it must comply with international labour laws,” she said.

McLean raised the need for a new U.S. law to guarantee the rights of migrant workers, who are essential to the economy, as underscored by the demand reinforced by the impact of COVID-19.

“We pushed for a law to cover all temporary visa programmes so that there would be more information, to avoid fraud and wage theft. But it is very difficult to get a commitment to immigration dialogue in the United States today,” he said.

But the ordeal that migrant workers face will not end with their work in the U.S. fields, because in October they will have to return to their hometowns, which will be even more impoverished due to the consequences of the health crisis, and with COVID-19 in all likelihood still posing a threat.

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