Weaponizing Science in Global Food Policy

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Opinion

SANTA CRUZ, California, Jun 25 2021 (IPS) – In July, the United Nations will convene “Science Days”, a high-profile event in preparation for the UN Food Systems Summit later this year. Over the course of two days, the world will be treated to a parade of Zoom sessions aimed at “highlighting the centrality of science, technology and innovation for food systems transformation.”


Maywa Montenegro

Nobody disputes the need for urgent action to transform the food system. But the UNFSS has been criticized by human rights experts for its top-down and non-transparent organization. Indigenous peoples, peasants, and civil society groups around the world know their hard-won rights are under attack. Many are protesting the summit’s legitimacy and organizing counter-mobilizations.

Scientists are also contesting a summit because of its selective embrace of science, as seen in a boycott letter signed by nearly 300 academics, from Brazil to Italy to Japan.

Through the Summit, “science” has been weaponized by powerful actors not only to promote a technology-driven approach to food systems, but also to fragment global food security governance and create institutions more amenable to the demands of agribusiness.

Recipe for Elite Global Governance

The UNFSS was announced in 2019 by the UN Secretary General as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The announcement came just after the UN signed a strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum. It also elicited outcry from social movements when Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, was chosen to lead the forum — a powerful signal of UNFSS allegiances.

The “multi-stakeholder” structure of the summit has raised concerns from observers who recognize the privatization of multilateral public governance it presages. While Kalibata describes the UNFSS as an inclusive “peoples’ summit,” more than 500 smallholder and peasant organizations signed a letter criticizing the summit’s multi-stakeholder platforms: “Instead of drawing from the innovative governance experiences that the UN system has to offer, the UN-WEF partnership is helping to establishing “stakeholder capitalism” as a governance model for the entire planet.”

Matthew Canfield

Through one lens, multistakeholderism looks like a set of “inclusive” practices: the summit has five Action Tracks (e.g. “Ensuring Access to Safe and Nutritious Food for All” and “Boosting Nature Positive Production at Sufficient Scale”), an endless number of “dialogues,” and an elaborate online forum where anyone can participate.

However, this profusion of spaces obscures the fact that the UNFSS has no built-in structures of accountability. This is particularly troublesome because, as UN special rapporteurs have observed, the summit’s process was pre-determined by a small set of actors: “The private sector, organizations serving the private sector (notably the World Economic Forum), scientists, and economists initiated the process. The table was set with their perspectives, knowledge, interests and biases.”

The scientific ideas shaping those parameters, then, should invite our curiosity and concern. What kinds of science are included — and excluded? What are the implications for the future of global food system governance?

Defining Science as Investment-Friendly Innovation

A new Scientific Group of the UNFSS, created to support a “science- and evidence-based summit,” provides some clues. In theory, the Scientific Group works to “ensure the robustness, breadth and independence of the science that underpins the summit and its outcomes.” In practice, the Group’s practices impoverish the scientific base on which the summit is meant to make policies.

Unlike existing global science advisory panels where experts are nominated through an inclusive and democratic process, the Scientific Group is handpicking experts amenable to “game-changing” solutions — access to gene-edited seeds, digital and data-driven technologies, and global commodity markets.

Alastair Iles

As a result, key areas of expertise, such as agroecology, Indigenous knowledge, and human rights are being excluded while industry and investor-friendly viewpoints are promoted as visionary.

While the Scientific Group appears at first to be diverse in terms of disciplines and geographies, it in fact reflects a set of overlapping, elite networks. Partners include well-worn institutional champions of the Green Revolution (the CGIAR), the central nervous system for “free trade” policy globally (the World Trade Organization), and a powerful consortium of wealthy nation-states (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), among others.

By drawing on these networks, the Scientific Group is serving as a gatekeeper for determining the meaning and boundaries of “science.” An analysis of its publications reveals critical flaws stemming from the Scientific Group’s narrow approach to scientific expertise. These include:

    • Science, technology, and innovation are uprooted from their political-economic and social conditions. As a result, structural drivers that produce hunger even as they generate wealth (e.g. for Bill Gates) are eclipsed in favor of boosting productivity with a twist of sustainability.
    • Biotechnology, Big Data, and global value chains are offered as the solution to all agronomic problems and the crisis of overfishing.
    • Multicultural “digital” inclusion is redeployed to promote Black, Brown, and Indigenous incorporation into an imperial model of Science, Technology, and Innovation. This ignores the rich knowledge these communities already hold — and obscures that Indigenous and agroecological knowledge cannot survive without land.

Science can and should play a role in global food governance. But far from the current UNFSS model, science can support in all its complexity and breadth, alongside many other expertises with equal rights to shape the future of food.

Maywa Montenegro works as an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, specializing in politics of knowledge, biotechnology, and agroecology.

Matthew Canfield is an assistant professor of Law and Society & Law and Development at Leiden Law School specializing in human rights and global food governance.

Alastair Iles works as an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, researching agroecology policies and sustainability transitions.

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Time to End Generational Injustice with a ‘Global Blue New Deal’ to Protect Oceans

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Opinion

Credit: Australian Institute of Marine Science

PARIS, Jun 8 2021 (IPS) – Increasingly, youth are rising up to declare that they’ve had enough of the cyclical exploitation of the environment that jeopardizes their own future.


Youth activism through the Global Climate Strikes and Fridays For Future protests have helped spur revolutionary policy frameworks, like the Green New Deal championed by U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

International organizations and sovereign governments have now interpreted the Green New Deal into frameworks and policies of their own; it’s clear that environmental policy led by youth has energized the discussion on global decarbonization and the social impacts of climate change.

However, the Green New Deal only mentioned the ocean once. We need to insert more Blue into the green transition.

Earth’s vast oceans are humanity’s single most important climate regulation tool. As governments coalesce around plans to quite literally save our species, we must recognize that there is no future without understanding the role the ocean has to play.

Beyond human life support, the ocean economy contributes to ecosystem services, jobs, and cultural services valued at USD 3-6 trillion, with fisheries and aquaculture alone contributing USD 100 billion per year and 250+ million jobs.

Our ocean, however, is overfished, polluted with plastic, and exploited for non-renewable resources like minerals and fossil fuels. This perpetuates a cycle of generational injustice and leaves youth to inherit an increasingly degraded environment with less and less time to restore it. Not only is this detrimental to progress at large, but our most vulnerable global communities, who contribute the least to global emissions, will feel the effects of our degraded environment the most severely.

Youth not only need to be proactive advocates for the SDGs, we need to hold the global community accountable to commitments they have made between nations and to youth as the greatest stakeholders in the future health of our environment.

Creating the “Global Blue New Deal”

In 2019, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance distributed surveys across its network to identify the key youth policy priorities for a healthy ocean and just future. We received 100+ responses from 38 countries in 5 languages.

Over the past year, SOA’s Youth Policy Advisory Council synthesized these into a youth-led, crowdsourced ocean policy framework: the Global Blue New Deal.

The first public draft of our Global Blue New Deal is being launched now, at the dawn of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which aims to gather global ocean stakeholders behind a common framework to deliver “the ocean we need for the future we want.”

Youth want to contribute to the success of the Ocean Decade and call on the international community to recognize our policy suggestions as part of the solutions our planet needs.

The vision of the Global Blue New Deal is to “outline an ocean policy framework that integrates crowdsourced youth priorities that will be proposed to governments on international, national, and local scales for implementation.”

It is organized under four pillars, each containing specific ocean policy solutions.

In brief:

Pillar 1
Carbon Neutrality: Transition to a Zero Carbon Future

    1. End offshore drilling and invest in renewable ocean energy
    2. Decarbonize the shipping industry
    3. Reduce land-based marine pollution
    4. Transition to a circular economy
    5. Strengthen legislation and enforcement against ocean contamination

Pillar 2
Preserve Biodiversity: Apply Nature-based Solutions to Promote Healthy Ecosystems and Climate Resilience

    1. Support the global movement to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030
    2. Enforce against non-compliance in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
    3. Establish a global moratorium against deep-sea mining
    4. Transition from “gray” manmade infrastructure like culverts and seawalls to nature-based blue carbon infrastructure including the restoration of wetlands, mangroves and marshes

Pillar 3:
Sustainable Seafood: Match Increasing Global Demand Sustainably

    1. Encourage sustainable governance of capture fisheries
    2. Enforce against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing
    3. Eliminate capacity-enhancing fisheries subsidies
    4. Provide a sustainable path for aquaculture
    5. Fund research and development of plant-based and cell-cultured seafood

Pillar 4:
Stakeholder Engagement: Include Local Communities in Natural Ocean Resource Management

    1. Ensure the sustainability of coastal ecotourism
    2. Promote ocean research and innovation, with a goal of mapping 100% of the global seafloor by 2030.
    3. Emphasize ocean literacy and capacity building
    4. Build stakeholder participation in ocean governance

We invite like-minded youths, scientists, policymakers, and other ocean stakeholders to visit https://www.soalliance.org/soablog/youth-led-blue-new-deal and help as we finalize the Global Blue New Deal ocean policy framework during our public comment period throughout July.

Each generation has inherited an increasingly degraded ocean environment with the poorest, most vulnerable communities feeling the impacts the most severely. This is our opportunity to rewrite the long history of compromising our ocean.

Mark Haver and Marina Porto are Chair and Co-Chair respectively of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, the world’s largest youth-led network of ocean allies.

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Studying Marine Life’s Brief Break from Human Noise

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Opinion

Hydrophone launch. Credit: The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)

NEW YORK, Apr 15 2021 (IPS) – Travel and economic slowdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to brake shipping, seafloor exploration, and many other human activities in the ocean, creating a unique moment to begin a time-series study of the impacts of sound on marine life.


Our community of scientists has identified more than 200 non-military ocean hydrophones worldwide and hopes to make the most of the unprecedented opportunity to pool their recorded data into the 2020 quiet ocean assessment and to help monitor the ocean soundscape long into the future.

Our aim is a network of 500 hydrophones capturing the signals of whales and other marine life while assessing the racket levels of human activity. Combined with other sea life monitoring methods such as animal tagging, the work will help reveal the extent to which noise in “the Anthropocene seas” impacts ocean species, which depend on sound and natural sonar to mate, navigate and feed across the ocean.

Sound travels far in the ocean and a hydrophone can pick up low frequency signals from hundreds, even thousands of kilometres away.

Assessing the risks of underwater sound for marine life requires understanding what sound levels cause harmful effects and where in the ocean vulnerable animals may be exposed to sound exceeding these levels.

In 2011, experts began developing the International Quiet Ocean Experiment (IQOE), launched in 2015 with the International Quiet Ocean Experiment Science Plan. Among our goals: to create a time series of measurements of ambient sound in many ocean locations to reveal variability and changes in intensity and other properties of sound at a range of frequencies.

The plan also included designating 2022 “the Year of the Quiet Ocean.” Due to COVID-19, however, the oceans are unlikely to be as quiet as they were in April, 2020 for many decades to come.

COVID-19 reduced sound levels more than we dreamed possible. IQOE, therefore, is focusing project resources to encourage study of changes in sound levels and effects on organisms that occurred in 2020, based on observations from hundreds of hydrophones worldwide in 2019-2021.

Of the 231 non-military hydrophones identified to February 2021, the highest concentrations are found along the North American coasts — Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic — Hawaii, Europe, and Antarctica, with some scattered through the Asia-Pacific region.

Several have agreed to their geographic coordinates and other metadata being shown on the IQOE website (https://www.iqoe.org/systems).

Sparse, sporadic deployment of hydrophones and obstacles to integrating measurements have narrowly limited what we confidently know.

We are therefore creating a global data repository with contributors using standardized methods, tools and depths to measure and document ocean soundscapes and effects on the distribution and behavior of vocalizing animals.

New software, MANTA (at https://bit.ly/3cVNUox), developed by researchers across the USA and led by the University of New Hampshire, will help standardize ocean sound recording data from collaborators, facilitating its comparability, pooling and visualization.

As well, an Open Portal to Underwater Sound (OPUS), is being tested at Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany to promote the use of acoustic data collected worldwide, providing easy access to MANTA-processed data. The aggregated data will permit soundscape maps of entire oceans.

Meanwhile, scientists over the past decade have developed powerful methods to estimate the distribution and abundance of vocalizing animals using passive acoustic monitoring.

The fledgling hydrophone network contributes to the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a network of observing assets monitoring currents, temperature, sea level, chemical pollution, litter, and other concerns worldwide.

Precious chance

Seldom has there been such a chance to collect quiet ocean data in the Anthropocene Seas. COVID-19 drastically decreased shipping, tourism and recreation, fishing and aquaculture, naval and coast guard exercises, offshore construction, port and channel dredging, and energy exploration and extraction. The concurrent price war that caused oil prices to dive to zero further quieted maritime energy activities.

The last comparable opportunity followed the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, which disrupted not just air travel; they also led to a shipping slowdown and ocean noise reduction, prompting biologists to study stress hormone levels in endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

With their 2001 data, research revealed higher September stress hormone levels over the next four years as the whales prepared to migrate to warmer southern waters where they calve, suggesting that the industrialized ocean causes chronic stress of animals.

We are on the way to timely, reliable, easily understood maps of ocean soundscapes, including the exceptional period of April 2020 when the COVID virus gave marine animals a brief break from human clatter.

Let’s learn from the COVID pause to help achieve safer operations for shipping industries, offshore energy operators, navies, and other users of the ocean.

Additional information about MANTA is available at https://bitbucket.org/CLO-BRP/manta-wiki/wiki/Home, and about the IQOE at https://bit.ly/3sDTkd

We invite parties in a position to help to join us in this global effort to assess the variability and trends of ocean sound and the effects of sound on marine life.

*Jesse Ausubel is the IQOE project originator and Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, New York City; Edward R. Urban Jr of the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research is the IQOE Project Manager

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Recipes with a Taste of Sustainable Development on the Coast of El Salvador

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Environment

María Luz Rodríguez stands next to her solar oven where she cooked lasagna in the village of El Salamar in San Luis La Herradura municipality. In this region in southern El Salvador, an effort is being made to implement environmental actions to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/ IPS

María Luz Rodríguez stands next to her solar oven where she cooked lasagna in the village of El Salamar in San Luis La Herradura municipality. In this region in southern El Salvador, an effort is being made to implement environmental actions to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/ IPS

SAN LUIS LA HERRADURA, El Salvador, Mar 31 2021 (IPS) – Salvadoran villager Maria Luz Rodriguez placed the cheese on top of the lasagna she was cooking outdoors, put the pan in her solar oven and glanced at the midday sun to be sure there was enough energy for cooking.


“Hopefully it won’t get too cloudy later,” Maria Luz, 78, told IPS. She then checked the thermometer inside the oven to see if it had reached 150 degrees Celsius, the ideal temperature to start baking.

She lives in El Salamar, a coastal village of 95 families located in San Luis La Herradura, a municipality in the central department of La Paz which is home to some 30,000 people on the edge of an impressive ecosystem: the mangroves and bodies of water that make up the Estero de Jaltepeque, a natural reserve whose watershed covers 934 square kilometres.

After several minutes the cheese began to melt, a clear sign that things were going well inside the solar oven, which is simply a box with a lid that functions as a mirror, directing sunlight into the interior, which is covered with metal sheets.

“I like to cook lasagna on special occasions,” Maria Luz said with a smile.

After Tropical Storm Stan hit Central America in 2005, a small emergency fund reached El Salamar two years later, which eventually became the start of a much more ambitious sustainable development project that ended up including more than 600 families.

Solar ovens and energy-efficient cookstoves emerged as an important component of the programme.

Aerial view of Estero de Jaltepeque, in San Luis La Herradura, a municipality on the Pacific coast in southern El Salvador where a sustainable development programme is being carried out in local communities, including the use of solar stoves and sustainable fishing and agriculture techniques. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

Aerial view of Estero de Jaltepeque, in San Luis La Herradura, a municipality on the Pacific coast in southern El Salvador where a sustainable development programme is being carried out in local communities, including the use of solar stoves and sustainable fishing and agriculture techniques. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

The project was financed by the Global Environment Facility‘s (GEF) Small Grants Programme, and El Salamar was later joined by other villages, bringing the total number to 18. The overall investment was more than 400,000 dollars.

In addition to solar ovens and high-energy rocket stoves, work was done on mangrove reforestation and sustainable management of fishing and agriculture, among other measures. Agriculture and fishing are the main activities in these villages, in addition to seasonal work during the sugarcane harvest.

While María Luz made the lasagna, her daughter, María del Carmen Rodríguez, 49, was cooking two other dishes: bean soup with vegetables and beef, and rice – not in a solar oven but on one of the rocket stoves.

This stove is a circular structure 25 centimetres high and about 30 centimetres in diameter, whose base has an opening in which a small metal grill is inserted to hold twigs no more than 15 centimetres long, which come from the gliridicia (Gliricidia sepium) tree. This promotes the use of living fences that provide firewood, to avoid damaging the mangroves.

The stove maintains a good flame with very little wood, due to its high energy efficiency, unlike traditional cookstoves, which require several logs to prepare each meal and produce smoke that is harmful to health.

María del Carmen Rodríguez cooks rice on a rocket stove using a few twigs from a tree species that emits less CO2 than mangroves, whose sustainability is also preserved thanks to the use of the tree. Many families in the community of El Salamar have benefited from this energy-efficient technology, as well as other initiatives promoted along the Pacific coast in southern El Salvador. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

María del Carmen Rodríguez cooks rice on a rocket stove using a few twigs from a tree species that emits less CO2 than mangroves, whose sustainability is also preserved thanks to the use of the tree. Many families in the community of El Salamar have benefited from this energy-efficient technology, as well as other initiatives promoted along the Pacific coast in southern El Salvador. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

The rocket stove can cook anything, but it is designed to work with another complementary mechanism for maximum energy efficiency.

Once the stews or soups have reached boiling point, they are placed inside the “magic” stove: a circular box about 36 centimetres in diameter made of polystyrene or durapax, as it is known locally, a material that retains heat.

The food is left there, covered, to finish cooking with the steam from the hot pot, like a kind of steamer.

“The nice thing about this is that you can do other things while the soup is cooking by itself in the magic stove,” explained María del Carmen, a homemaker who has five children.

The technology for both stoves was brought to these coastal villages by a team of Chileans financed by the Chile Fund against Hunger and Poverty, established in 2006 by the government of that South American country and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to promote South-South cooperation.

The Chileans taught a group of young people from several of these communities how to make the components of the rocket stoves, which are made from clay, cement and a commercial sealant or glue.

The blue crab is one of the species raised in nurseries by people in the Estero de Jaltepeque region in southern El Salvador, as part of an environmental sustainability project in the area financed by the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

The blue crab is one of the species raised in nurseries by people in the Estero de Jaltepeque region in southern El Salvador, as part of an environmental sustainability project in the area financed by the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

The use of these stoves “has reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by at least 50 percent compared to traditional stoves,” Juan René Guzmán, coordinator of the GEF’s Small Grants Programme in El Salvador, told IPS.

Some 150 families use rocket stoves and magic stoves in 10 of the villages that were part of the project, which ended in 2017.

“People were given their cooking kits, and in return they had to help plant mangroves, or collect plastic, not burn garbage, etc. But not everyone was willing to work for the environment,” Claudia Trinidad, 26, a native of El Salamar and a senior studying business administration – online due to the COVID pandemic – at the Lutheran University of El Salvador, told IPS.

Those who worked on the mangrove reforestation generated hours of labour, which were counted as more than 800,000 dollars in matching funds provided by the communities.

In the project area, 500 hectares of mangroves have been preserved or restored, and sustainable practices have been implemented on 300 hectares of marine and land ecosystems.

Petrona Cañénguez shows how she cooks bean soup on an energy-efficient rocket stove in an outside room of her home in the hamlet of San Sebastián El Chingo, one of the beneficiaries of a sustainable development programme in the municipality of San Luis La Herradura, on El Salvador's southern coast. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

Petrona Cañénguez shows how she cooks bean soup on an energy-efficient rocket stove in an outside room of her home in the hamlet of San Sebastián El Chingo, one of the beneficiaries of a sustainable development programme in the municipality of San Luis La Herradura, on El Salvador’s southern coast. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

Petrona Cañénguez, from the town of San Sebastián El Chingo, was among the people who participated in the work. She was also cooking bean soup for lunch on her rocket stove when IPS visited her home during a tour of the area.

“I like the stove because you feel less heat when you are preparing food, plus it’s very economical, just a few twigs and that’s it,” said Petrona, 59.

The bean soup, a staple dish in El Salvador, would be ready in an hour, she said. She used just under one kilo of beans, and the soup would feed her and her four children for about five days.

However, she used only the rocket stove, without the magic stove, more out of habit than anything else. “We always have gliridicia twigs on hand,” she said, which make it easy to use the stove.

Although the solar oven offers the cleanest solution, few people still have theirs, IPS found.

This is due to the fact that the wood they were built with was not of the best quality and the coastal weather conditions and moths soon took their toll.

Maria Luz is one of the few people who still uses hers, not only to cook lasagna, but for a wide variety of recipes, such as orange bread.

However, the project is not only about stoves and ovens.

 Some families living in coastal villages in the municipality of San Luis La Herradura have dug ponds for sustainable fishing, which was of great help to the local population during the COVID-19 lockdown in this coastal area of southern El Salvador. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

Some families living in coastal villages in the municipality of San Luis La Herradura have dug ponds for sustainable fishing, which was of great help to the local population during the COVID-19 lockdown in this coastal area of southern El Salvador. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala /IPS

The beneficiary families also received cayucos (flat-bottomed boats smaller than canoes) and fishing nets, plus support for setting up nurseries for blue crabs and mollusks native to the area, as part of the fishing component with a focus on sustainability in this region on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Several families have dug ponds that fill up with water from the estuary at high tide, where they raise fish that provide them with food in times of scarcity, such as during the lockdown declared in the country in March 2020 to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The project also promoted the planting of corn and beans with native seeds, as well as other crops – tomatoes, cucumbers, cushaw squash and radishes – using organic fertiliser and herbicides.

The president of the Local Development Committee of San Luis La Herradura, Daniel Mercado, told IPS that during the COVID-19 health emergency people in the area resorted to bartering to stock up on the food they needed.

“If one community had tomatoes and another had fish, we traded, we learned to survive, to coexist,” Daniel said. “It was like the communism of the early Christians.”

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Energy Cooperatives Swim Against the Tide in Mexico

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Energy

Onergia, one of the two energy cooperatives operating in Mexico today, installs photovoltaic systems, such as this one at the Tosepan Titataniske Union of Cooperatives in the municipality of Cuetzalan, in the southern state of Puebla. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

Onergia, one of the two energy cooperatives operating in Mexico today, installs photovoltaic systems, such as this one at the Tosepan Titataniske Union of Cooperatives in the municipality of Cuetzalan, in the southern state of Puebla. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

MEXICO CITY, Aug 31 2020 (IPS) – A Mexican solar energy cooperative, Onergia, seeks to promote decent employment, apply technological knowledge and promote alternatives that are less polluting than fossil fuels, in one of the alternative initiatives with which Mexico is seeking to move towards an energy transition.


“We organised ourselves in a cooperative for an energy transition that will rethink the forms of production, distribution and consumption to build a healthier and fairer world,” Onergia founding partner and project director Antonio Castillo told IPS. “In this sector, it has been more difficult; we have to invest in training and go against the logic of the market.”

The eight-member cooperative, created in 2017, has so far installed some 50 photovoltaic systems, mainly in the south-central state of Puebla.

“A public policy is needed that would allow us to move towards the transition. Getting people to adopt alternatives depends on public policy. It is fundamental for people to have the freedom to choose how to consume. It is our job to organise as consumers.” —
Antonio Castillo

Castillo explained by phone that the cooperative works with middle- and upper-class households that can finance the cost of the installation as well as with local communities keen on reducing their energy bill, offering more services and expanding access to energy.

In the case of local communities, the provision of solar energy is part of broader social projects in which the beneficiary organisations’ savings and loan cooperatives design the financial structure to carry out the work. A basic household system can cost more than 2,200 dollars and a larger one, over 22,000.

“The communities are motivated to adopt renewable energy as a strategy to defend the land against threats from mining or hydroelectric companies,” said Castillo. “They don’t need to be large-scale energy generators, because they already have the local supply covered. The objective is to provide the communities with alternatives.”

Onergia, a non-profit organisation, promotes distributed or decentralised generation.

In Mexico, energy cooperatives are a rarity. In fact, there are only two, due to legal, technical and financial barriers, even though the laws governing cooperatives recognise their potential role in energy among other diverse sectors. The other, Cooperativa LF del Centro, provides services in several states but is not a generator of electricity.

The Electricity Industry Law, in effect since 2014, allows the deployment of local projects smaller than one megawatt, but practically excludes them from the electricity auctions that the government had been organising since 2016 and that the administration of leftwing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put a stop to after he took office in December 2018.

Since then, López Obrador has opted to fortify the state monopolies of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) oil giant, which translates into favouring fossil fuels over renewable sources.

The National Electric System Development Programme 2018-2032 projects that fossil fuels will represent 67 percent of the energy mix in 2022; wind energy, 10 percent; hydroelectric, nine percent; solar, four percent; nuclear, three percent, and geothermal and bioenergy, four percent.

In 2032, the energy outlook will not vary much, as fossil fuels will account for 60 percent; wind, nuclear and geothermal energy will rise to 13, eight and three percent, respectively; hydroelectric power will drop to eight percent; while solar and bioenergy will remain the same.

In Mexico, rural communities are guaranteeing their electricity supply by using clean sources, thus furthering the energy transition to micro and mini-scale generation. The photo shows the "Laatzi-Duu" ecotourism site (the name means "standing plain" in the Zapotec indigenous language) which is self-sufficient thanks to a solar panel installed on its roof, in the municipality of San Juan Evangelista Analco in the southern state of Oaxaca. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

In Mexico, rural communities are guaranteeing their electricity supply by using clean sources, thus furthering the energy transition to micro and mini-scale generation. The photo shows the “Laatzi-Duu” ecotourism site (the name means “standing plain” in the Zapotec indigenous language) which is self-sufficient thanks to a solar panel installed on its roof, in the municipality of San Juan Evangelista Analco in the southern state of Oaxaca. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The government cancelled the call for long-term electric auctions that allowed private companies to build wind and solar plants and sell the energy to CFE. But these tenders privileged private Mexican and foreign capital and large-scale generation.

In a dialogue with IPS, independent researcher Carlos Tornel questioned the predominant energy design promoted by the 2013 reform that opened up the hydrocarbon and electricity markets to private capital, and the form of energy production based on passive consumers.

“We don’t have an effective legal framework to promote that kind of energy transition,” said the expert via WhatsApp from the northeast English city of Durham. “A free market model was pursued, which allowed the entry of megaprojects through auctions and allowed access to those who could offer a very low cost of generation, which could only be obtained on a large scale.”

With that strategy, he added, “small projects were left out. And the government did not put in place economic incentives to foment cooperative schemes.”

“We need a more active model focused on the collective good,” added Tornel, who is earning a PhD in Human Geography at Durham University in the UK.

Mexico, the second largest economy in Latin America with a population of 129 million, depends heavily on hydrocarbons and will continue to do so in the medium term if it does not accelerate the energy transition.

In the first quarter of 2019, gross generation totaled 80,225 gigawatt hours (Gwh), up from 78,167 in the same period last year. Gas-fired combined cycle plants (with two consecutive cycles, conventional turbine and steam) contributed 40,094, conventional thermoelectric 9,306, and coal-fired 6,265.

Hydroelectric power plants contributed 5,137 Gwh; wind fields 4,285; nuclear power plants 2,382; and solar stations 1,037.

The Energy Transition Law of 2015 stipulates that clean energy must meet 30 percent of demand by 2021 and 35 percent by 2024. By including hydropower and nuclear energy, the country will have no problem reaching these goals.

Residents of the small rural community of Amatlán, in the municipality of Zoquiapan in the state of Puebla, oversee the operation of photovoltaic panels installed by the Mexican cooperative Onergia. This type of cooperative can help rural communities in Mexico access clean energy, particularly solar power. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

Residents of the small rural community of Amatlán, in the municipality of Zoquiapan in the state of Puebla, oversee the operation of photovoltaic panels installed by the Mexican cooperative Onergia. This type of cooperative can help rural communities in Mexico access clean energy, particularly solar power. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

By early August, the government’s Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) had granted 310 permits for solar generation, small-scale production and self-supply, totaling almost 22,000 Mw.

The 2017 report Renewable Energy Auctions and Participatory Citizen Projects, produced by the international non-governmental Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), cites, with respect to Mexico, the obligation for investors to form self-sufficient companies, which complicates attempts to develop local ventures.

Onergia’s Castillo stressed the need for a clear and stable regulatory framework.

“A public policy is needed that would allow us to move towards the transition,” he said. “Getting people to adopt alternatives depends on public policy. It is fundamental for people to have the freedom to choose how to consume. It is our job to organise as consumers.”

Affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Onergia is reviewing the way it works and its financial needs to generate its own power supply. It also works with the Renewable Energies Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the design and installation of solar power systems.

In March, the government’s National Council for Science and Technology launched a strategic national programme on energy transition that will promote sustainable rural energy projects and community solar energy, to be implemented starting in 2021.

In addition, the energy ministry is set to announce the Special Energy Transition Programme 2019-2024.

But to protect the CFE, the CRE is blocking approval of the development of collective distributed generation schemes, which would allow citizens to sell surplus energy to other consumers, and the installation of storage systems in solar parks.

Tornel criticised the lack of real promotion of renewable sources.

“The Mexican government has been inconsistent in its handling of this issue,” he maintained. “They talk about guaranteeing energy security through hydrocarbons. There is no plan for an energy transition based on renewables or on supporting community projects. We have no indication that they support renewable, and that’s very worrying.”

The REN21 report recommends reserving a quota for participatory citizen projects and facilitating access to energy purchase agreements, which ensures the efficiency of tenders and the effectiveness of guaranteed tariffs for these undertakings.

In addition, it proposes the establishment of an authority for citizen projects, capacity building, promotion of community energy and specific national energy targets for these initiatives.

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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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