Latin America Sets an Example in Welcoming Displaced Venezuelans

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Migration & Refugees

A Venezuelan family carrying a few belongings crosses the Simon Bolivar Bridge at the border into Colombia. Over the years, the migration flow has grown due to increasing numbers of people with unsatisfied basic needs. CREDIT: Siegfried Modola/UNHCR

A Venezuelan family carrying a few belongings crosses the Simon Bolivar Bridge at the border into Colombia. Over the years, the migration flow has grown due to increasing numbers of people with unsatisfied basic needs. CREDIT: Siegfried Modola/UNHCR

CARACAS, Jul 26 2021 (IPS) – The exodus of more than five million Venezuelans in the last six years has led countries in the developing South, Venezuela’s neighbours, to set an example with respect to welcoming and integrating displaced populations, with shared benefits for the new arrivals and the nations that receive them.


In this region “there is a living laboratory, where insertion and absorption efforts are working. The new arrivals are turning what was seen as a burden into a contribution to the host communities and nations,” Eduardo Stein, head of the largest assistance programme for displaced Venezuelans, told IPS.

According to figures from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 5,650,000 people have left Venezuela, mainly crossing into neighbouring countries, as migrants, displaced persons or refugees, as of July 2021.

“This is the largest migration crisis in the history of Latin America,” Stein said by phone from his Guatemala City office in the Interagency Coordination Platform for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants (R4V), created by the UNHCR and IOM in partnership with 159 other diverse entities working throughout the region.

“This region is a living laboratory, where insertion and absorption efforts are working. The new arrivals are turning what was seen as a burden into a contribution to the host communities and nations.” — Eduardo Stein

Colombia, the neighbour with the most intense historical relationship, stands out for receiving daily flows of hundreds and even thousands of Venezuelans, who already number almost 1.8 million in the country, and for providing them with Temporary Protection Status that grants them documentation and access to jobs, services and other rights.

Colombia’s Fundación Renacer, which has assisted thousands of child and adolescent survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and other types of sexual and gender-based violence, is a model for how to welcome and help displaced persons.

Renacer, staffed by activists such as Mayerlin Vergara, 2020 winner of the UNHCR’s annual Nansen Refugee Award for outstanding aid workers who help refugees, displaced and stateless people, rescues girls and young women from places like brothels and bars where they are forced into sexual or labour exploitation, often by trafficking networks that capture the most vulnerable migrants.

“In Colombian society as a whole there has been a process of understanding, after the phenomenon was the other way around for several decades in the 20th century, of people displaced by the violence and crisis in Colombia being welcomed in Venezuela,” Camilo González, president of the Colombian Institute for Development and Peace Studies, told IPS.

When the great migratory wave began in 2014-2015, “many Venezuelans were taken on as half-price cheap labour by businesses, such as coffee harvesters and others in the big cities, but that situation has improved, even despite the slowdown of the pandemic,” said González.

Stein mentioned the positive example set by Colombia’s flower exporters, which employed many Venezuelan women in cutting and packaging, a task that did not require extensive training.

The head of the R4V, who was vice-president of Guatemala between 2004 and 2008 and has held various international positions, noted that in the first phase, the receiving countries appreciated the arrival of “highly prepared Venezuelans, very well trained professionals.”

Yukpa Indians from Venezuela register upon arrival at a border post in Colombia. The legalisation and documentation of migrants arranged by the Colombian government allows migrants to access services and exercise rights in the neighbouring country. CREDIT: Johanna Reina/UNHCR

Yukpa Indians from Venezuela register upon arrival at a border post in Colombia. The legalisation and documentation of migrants arranged by the Colombian government allows migrants to access services and exercise rights in the neighbouring country. CREDIT: Johanna Reina/UNHCR

“One example would be the thousands of Venezuelan engineers who arrived in Argentina and were integrated into productive activities in a matter of weeks,” he said.

But, Stein pointed out, “the following wave of Venezuelans leaving their country was not made up of professionals; the profile changed to people with huge unsatisfied basic needs, without a great deal of training but with basic skills, and nevertheless the borders remained open, and they received very generous responses.”

But, he acknowledged, in some cases “the arrival of this irregular, undocumented migration was linked to acts of violence and violations of the law, which created internal tension.”

Iván Briscoe, regional head of the Brussels-based conflict observatory International Crisis Group, told IPS that in the case of Colombia, “it has been impressive to receive almost two million Venezuelans, in a country of 50 million inhabitants, 40 percent of whom live in poverty.”

Colombia continues to be plagued by social problems, as shown by the street protests raging since April, “and therefore the temporary protection status, a generous measure by President Iván Duque’s government, does not guarantee that Venezuelan migrants will have access to the social services they may demand,” Briscoe said.

The large number of Venezuelans “means an additional cost of 100 million dollars per year for the health services alone,” said González, who spoke to IPS by telephone from the Colombian capital.

Against this backdrop, there have been expressions of xenophobia, as various media outlets interpreted statements by Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, who after a crime committed by a Venezuelan, suggested the deportation of “undesirable” nationals from that country.

There were also demonstrations against the influx of Venezuelans in Ecuador and Panama, as well as Peru, where the policy of President-elect Pedro Castillo towards the one million Venezuelan immigrants is still unclear, as well as deportations from Chile and Trinidad and Tobago, and new obstacles to their arrival in the neighbouring Dutch islands.

“Not everything has been rosy,” Stein admitted, “as there are still very complex problems, such as the risks that, between expressions of xenophobia and the danger of trafficking, the most vulnerable migrant girls and young women face.”

However, the head of the R4V considered that “we have entered a new phase, beyond the immediate assistance that can and should be provided to those who have just arrived, and that is the insertion and productive or educational integration in the communities.”

Migrants who have benefited from Operation Welcome in Brazil, where there are more than 260,000 Venezuelans, shop at a market in the largest city in the country, São Paulo. CREDIT: Mauro Vieira/MDS-UNHCR

Migrants who have benefited from Operation Welcome in Brazil, where there are more than 260,000 Venezuelans, shop at a market in the largest city in the country, São Paulo. CREDIT: Mauro Vieira/MDS-UNHCR

Throughout the region “there are places that have seen that immigrants represent an attraction for investment and labour and productive opportunities for the host communities themselves.”

Another example is provided by Brazil, with its Operação Acolhida (Operation Welcome), which includes a programme to disperse throughout its vast territory Venezuelans who came in through the northern border and first settled, precariously, in cities in the state of Amazonas.

More than 260,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Brazil – among them some 5,000 indigenous Waraos, from the Orinoco delta, and a similar number of Pemon Indians, close to the border – and some 50,000 have been recognised as refugees by the Brazilian government.

Brazil has the seventh largest Venezuelan community, after Colombia, Peru, the United States, Chile, Ecuador and Spain. It is followed by Argentina, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Throughout the region, organisations have mushroomed, not only to provide relief but also to actively seek the insertion of Venezuelans, in some cases headed by Venezuelans themselves, as in the case of the Fundacolven foundation in Bogota.

“We are active on two fronts, because first we motivate companies to take on workers who, as immigrants, are willing to go the ‘extra mile’,” said Venezuelan Mario Camejo, one of the directors of Fundacolven.

As for the immigrants, “we help them prepare and polish their skills so that they can successfully search for and find stable employment, if they have already ‘burned their bridges’ and do not plan to return,” he added.

On this point, Stein commented that the growing insertion of Venezuelans “shows how this crisis can evolve without implying an internal solution in Venezuela,” a country whose projected population according to the census of 10 years ago should have been 32.9 million and is instead around 28 million.

Based on surveys carried out in several countries, the head of R4V indicated that “the majority of Venezuelans who have migrated and settled in these host countries are not interested in going back in the short term.”

Julio Meléndez is a young Venezuelan who has found employment in food distribution at a hospital in Cali, in western Colombia. Labour insertion is key for the integration of migrants in host communities. CREDIT: Laura Cruz Cañón/UNHCR

Julio Meléndez is a young Venezuelan who has found employment in food distribution at a hospital in Cali, in western Colombia. Labour insertion is key for the integration of migrants in host communities. CREDIT: Laura Cruz Cañón/UNHCR

According to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, they have benefited from the fact that the countries of the region “are an example, and the rest of the world can learn a lot about the inclusion and integration of refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

In the north of the region, Mexico is dealing with a migration phenomenon on four fronts. On one hand, 12 million Mexicans live in the United States. And on the other, every year hundreds of thousands of migrants make their way through the country, mainly Central Americans and in recent years also people from the Caribbean, Venezuelans and Africans.

In addition, the United States sends back to Mexico hundreds of thousands of people who cross its southern border without the required documents. And in fourth place, the least well-known aspect: Mexico is home to more than one million migrants and refugees who have chosen to make their home in that country.

Major recipients of refugees and asylum seekers in other regions are Turkey, in the eastern Mediterranean, hosting 3.7 million (92 percent Syrians), and, with 1.4 million displaced persons each, Pakistan (which has received a massive influx of people from Afghanistan) and Uganda (refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other neighbouring countries).

In Sudan there are one million refugees, Bangladesh, Iran and Lebanon host 900,000 each, while in the industrialised North the cases of Germany, which received 1.2 million refugees from the Middle East, and the United States, which has 300,000 refugees and one million asylum seekers in its territory, stand out.

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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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Mexico’s Development Banks Fuel the Fossil Energy Trade

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Energy

Demonstrators demand clarification of the murder of land rights activist Samir Flores and the shutdown of a thermoelectric plant in the state of Morelos, in central Mexico, in a February 2019 protest on Mexico City's emblematic Paseo Reforma. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Demonstrators demand clarification of the murder of land rights activist Samir Flores and the shutdown of a thermoelectric plant in the state of Morelos, in central Mexico, in a February 2019 protest on Mexico City’s emblematic Paseo Reforma. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

MEXICO CITY, May 20 2020 (IPS) – Since 2012, Teresa Castellanos has fought the construction of a gas-fired power plant in Huexca, in the central Mexican state of Morelos, adjacent to the country’s capital.


“We don’t want the power plant to operate, because it will cause irreparable damage, polluting the water and air. This project was imposed on us; we have to defend the water and the land. This is not an industrial zone,” the activist, coordinator of the Huexca Resistance Committee, told IPS.

During the tests, the constant noise of the turbines also altered the life of this small community of just over 1,000 people, mostly farmers, near the Cuautla River, within the rural municipality of Yecapixtla.

“Development banks must have safeguards and principles for sustainable investment. National regulations are needed, which define climate finance and green finance, what principles govern them, what are the climate risks. The trend should be to increasingly finance green projects and less and less hydrocarbons.” — Liliana Estrada

The Central Combined Cycle Plant, located in Huexca and with a capacity of 620 megawatts based on gas and steam, is part of the Morelos Integral Project (PIM), developed by the state Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). It also consists of an aqueduct and a gas pipeline that crosses the states of Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala.

The People’s Front in Defence of Land and Water of Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala and its ally, the Permanent Assembly of the People of Morelos, have managed to get several court orders that have blocked the operation of the plant, the 12-km aqueduct and the 171-km gas pipeline since 2015.

Castellanos, who has won an international and a national award for her activism, has been involved in the battle against the plant from the very start, which has earned her persecution and threats.

The opposition to the power plant by local communities that depend on planting corn, beans, squash and tomatoes and raising cattle and pigs, focuses on the lack of consultation, the threat to their agricultural activity, due to the extraction of water from the rivers, and the discharge of liquid waste.

In February 2019, a public consultation that did not meet international standards supported the completion of the project.

A few days earlier, activist Samir Flores had been murdered, a crime that remains unsolved – just one more instance of violence against environmentalists in Mexico. Despite Flores’ murder, the government of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador went ahead with the referendum and upheld the result.

Public funds have fuelled the conflict, as the state-owned National Bank of Public Works and Services (Banobras) lent some 55 million dollars for the pipeline.

As in the case of other projects, development banks have become a financial pillar for the oil industry in Latin America’s second-largest nation, population 130 million.

The National Bank of Foreign Trade (Bancomext), Banobras and Nacional Financiera (Nafin) have funneled millions of dollars into building pipelines and oil and gas facilities in recent years, even though the climate change crisis makes it necessary to abandon such investments.

They have also financed renewable energy projects, but in much smaller amounts than fossil fuels.

The construction and operation of the Central Combined Cycle Plant, of the state Federal Electricity Commission, financed with public funds, unleashed a conflict with residents of Huexca, a small community in the central Mexican state of Morelos, which has brought the operation of the thermoelectric plant to a halt. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The construction and operation of the Central Combined Cycle Plant, of the state Federal Electricity Commission, financed with public funds, unleashed a conflict with residents of Huexca, a small community in the central Mexican state of Morelos, which has brought the operation of the thermoelectric plant to a halt. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Energy reform pillar

The energy reform that then conservative president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) enacted in 2013 opened the sector to private capital, broke the monopoly of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) oil giant and CFE, and made Mexico an attractive market for international investment in the sector.

To support this transformation, the state development banks also opened their coffers.´

Since 2012, Banobras, which finances infrastructure and public works and services, has lent at least 721 million dollars for the construction of gas pipelines, 10.2 billion dollars for oil and gas projects, 251 million dollars for electrical cogeneration, from steam generated in hydrocarbon plants, and eight million dollars for the construction of a thermoelectric plant that will burn fuel oil in the northwestern state of Baja California Sur.

Bancomext, which provides financing to exporters, importers and nine strategic sectors, has delivered some 500,000 dollars to oil companies in the eastern state of Tamaulipas and another 446 million dollars in Mexico City. It has also provided 65.4 million dollars to gas initiatives in the northern state of Nuevo Leon and 626.7 million dollars in Mexico City.

In addition, it has contributed 1.5 billion dollars for the supply of gas through pipelines to the final consumer; 324 million dollars for the extraction of oil and gas; 216 million dollars for the construction of public works for oil and gas; 126 million dollars for the manufacture of products derived from oil and coal; nearly seven million dollars for oil refining; 0.65 million dollars for the commercialisation of fuels; 0.25 million dollars for the drilling and maintenance of hydrocarbon wells; as well as 0.25 million dollars for oil platform maintenance and services.

In February, Bancomext granted a loan of 7.1 million dollars to Grupo Diarqco, in what it presented as the first credit to a private Mexican company in the industry, to exploit an oil field in the southeastern state of Tabasco.

Nafin, which grants credits and guarantees to public and private projects, created in 2014 the Energy Impulse Programme for these initiatives, endowed with more than a billion dollars.

It also manages, along with the economy ministry, the Public Trust to Promote the Development of Energy Industry National Suppliers and Contractors, designed for the industrial promotion of local production chains and direct investment in the energy industry, which this year has a fund of some 41 million dollars.

Missing: social and environmental safeguards

As in the case of the Morelos Integral Project, the gas pipelines have been a source of conflict with local communities, arising from the lack of socio-environmental safeguards and standards to guarantee that a project and its financing will respect the human rights of potentially affected communities.

Nafin and Banobras lack such safeguards, while Bacomext has had an “Environmental and Social Risk Management System Guide” since 2017, with no evidence of whether and how it has been applied to energy projects financed since then.

Since 2003, three platforms of international standards have emerged, to which Mexico’s development banks have not adhered, on human rights; social and environmental assessments and impacts; the application of safeguards; stakeholder participation; complaint resolution; and transparency.

The planet needs 80 percent of the global hydrocarbon reserves to stay underground in order for the temperature increase to remain at 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The treaty, signed by 196 countries and territories in 2015, will enter into force at year-end and is considered indispensable to avoid irreversible climate disasters and human catastrophes.

Liliana Estrada, a researcher with the Climate Finance Group of Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS that most investment in energy still goes to fossil fuels.

“After the reform, they have to enter into strategic projects and follow the guidelines of the government; they cannot go against these strategic lines. The gas and gas pipelines became strategic,” with the boost to the megaprojects of the López Obrador administration, said the representative of this coalition of non-governmental organisations and academics.

These credits are part of the fossil fuel subsidies that Mexico has pledged, to several international bodies, to eliminate.

The Mexican energy industry has also attracted international private banks, which have lent 55.95 billion dollars to 12 corporations, according to “Banking on Climate Change: Fossil Fuel Finance Report 2020”, released in March by six international environmental organisations.

The CFE received some 5.4 billion dollars from 12 banks between 2016 and 2019, and Pemex received 48.3 billion dollars from 20 foreign banks.

Based on Huexca’s experience, Castellanos demanded that these investments be stopped.

“If it’s our company, as the government says, then we can close it down. We have to defend the space in which we live, because we only have one planet and it belongs to all of us, it belongs to every living being, and it is our obligation to contribute something to this planet, because we are only here for a short while, we are guests of the earth”, she said.

Estrada called for sustainable financing regulations and questioned the lack of government leadership in this regard.

“Development banks must have safeguards and principles for sustainable investment,” she said. “National regulations are needed, which define climate finance and green finance, what principles govern them, what are the climate risks. The trend should be to increasingly finance green projects and less and less hydrocarbons.”

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

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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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