Employee-run Companies, Part of the Landscape of an Argentina in Crisis

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Cooperatives, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations, Trade & Investment

Labour

A group of Farmacoop workers stand in the courtyard of their plant in Buenos Aires. Members of the Argentine cooperative proudly say that theirs is the first laboratory in the world to be recovered by its workers. CREDIT: Courtesy of Pedro Pérez/Tiempo Argentino.

A group of Farmacoop workers stand in the courtyard of their plant in Buenos Aires. Members of the Argentine cooperative proudly say that theirs is the first laboratory in the world to be recovered by its workers. CREDIT: Courtesy of Pedro Pérez/Tiempo Argentino.

BUENOS AIRES, May 24 2022 (IPS) – “All we ever wanted was to keep working. And although we have not gotten to where we would like to be, we know that we can,” says Edith Pereira, a short energetic woman, as she walks through the corridors of Farmacoop, in the south of the Argentine capital. She proudly says it is “the first pharmaceutical laboratory in the world recovered by its workers.”


Pereira began to work in what used to be the Roux Ocefa laboratory in Buenos Aires in 1983. At its height it had more than 400 employees working two nine-hour shifts, as she recalls in a conversation with IPS.

But in 2016 the laboratory fell into a crisis that first manifested itself in delays in the payment of wages and a short time later led to the owners removing the machinery, and emptying and abandoning the company.

The workers faced up to the disaster with a struggle that included taking over the plant for several months and culminated in 2019 with the creation of Farmacoop, a cooperative of more than 100 members, which today is getting the laboratory back on its feet.

In fact, during the worst period of the pandemic, Farmacoop developed rapid antigen tests to detect COVID-19, in partnership with scientists from the government’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet), the leading organization in the sector.

Farmacoop is part of a powerful movement in Argentina, as recognized by the government, which earlier this month launched the first National Registry of Recovered Companies (ReNacER), with the aim of gaining detailed knowledge of a sector that, according to official estimates, comprises more than 400 companies and some 18,000 jobs.

The presentation of the new Registry took place at an oil cooperative that processes soybeans and sunflower seeds on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, built on what was left of a company that filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and laid off its 126 workers without severance pay.

Edith Pereira (seated) and Blácida Benitez, two of the members of Farmacoop, a laboratory recovered by its workers in Buenos Aires, are seen here in the production area. This is the former Roux Ocefa laboratory, which went bankrupt in the capital of Argentina and was left owing a large amount of back wages to its workers. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

Edith Pereira (seated) and Blácida Benitez, two of the members of Farmacoop, a laboratory recovered by its workers in Buenos Aires, are seen here in the production area. This is the former Roux Ocefa laboratory, which went bankrupt in the capital of Argentina and was left owing a large amount of back wages to its workers. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

The event was led by President Alberto Fernández, who said that he intends to “convince Argentina that the popular economy exists, that it is here to stay, that it is valuable and that it must be given the tools to continue growing.”

Fernández said on that occasion that the movement of worker-recuperated companies was born in the country in 2001, as a result of the brutal economic and social crisis that toppled the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa.

“One out of four Argentines was out of work, poverty had reached 60 percent and one of the difficulties was that companies were collapsing, the owners disappeared and the people working in those companies wanted to continue producing,” he said.

“That’s when the cooperatives began to emerge, so that those who were becoming unemployed could get together and continue working, sometimes in the companies abandoned by their owners, sometimes on the street,” the president added.

Two technicians package products at the Farmacoop laboratory, a cooperative with which some of the workers of the former bankrupt company undertook its recovery through self-management, a formula that is growing in Argentina in the face of company closures during successive economic crises. CREDIT: Courtesy of Farmacoop

Two technicians package products at the Farmacoop laboratory, a cooperative with which some of the workers of the former bankrupt company undertook its recovery through self-management, a formula that is growing in Argentina in the face of company closures during successive economic crises. CREDIT: Courtesy of Farmacoop

A complex social reality

More than 20 years later, this South American country of 45 million people finds itself once again in a social situation as severe or even more so than back then.

The new century began with a decade of growth, but today Argentines have experienced more than 10 years of economic stagnation, which has left its mark.

Poverty, according to official data, stands at 37 percent of the population, in a context of 60 percent annual inflation, which is steadily undermining people’s incomes and hitting the most vulnerable especially hard.

The latest statistics from the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security indicate that 12.43 million people are formally employed, which in real terms – due to the increase of the population – is less than the 12.37 million jobs that were formally registered in January 2018.

“I would say that in Argentina we have been seeing the destruction of employment and industry for 40 years, regardless of the orientation of the governments. That is why we understand that worker-recovered companies, as a mechanism for defending jobs, will continue to exist,” says Bruno Di Mauro, the president of the Farmacoop cooperative.

“It is a form of resistance in the face of the condemnation of exclusion from the labor system that we workers suffer,” he adds to IPS.

"He who abandons gets no prize" reads the banner with which part of the members of the Farmacoop cooperative were demonstrating in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, during the long labor dispute with the former owners who drove the pharmaceutical company into bankruptcy. The workers managed to recover it in 2019. CREDIT: Courtesy of Bruno Di Mauro/Farmacoop.

“He who abandons gets no prize” reads the banner with which part of the members of the Farmacoop cooperative were demonstrating in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, during the long labor dispute with the former owners who drove the pharmaceutical company into bankruptcy. The workers managed to recover it in 2019. CREDIT: Courtesy of Bruno Di Mauro/Farmacoop.

Today Farmacoop has three active production lines, including Aqualane brand moisturizing cream, used for decades by Argentines for sunburn. The cooperative is currently in the cumbersome process of seeking authorizations from the health authority for other products.

“When I look back, I think that we decided to form the cooperative and recover the company without really understanding what we were getting into. It was a very difficult process, in which we had colleagues who fell into depression, who saw pre-existing illnesses worsen and who died,” Di Mauro says.

“But we learned that we workers can take charge of any company, no matter how difficult the challenge. We are not incapable just because we are part of the working class,” he adds.

Farmacoop’s workers currently receive a “social wage” paid by the State, which also provided subsidies for the purchase of machinery.

The plant, now under self-management, is a gigantic old 8,000-square-meter building with meeting rooms, laboratories and warehouse areas where about 40 people work today, but which was the workplace of several hundred workers in its heyday.

It is located between the neighborhoods of Villa Lugano and Mataderos, in an area of factories and low-income housing mixed with old housing projects, where the rigors of the successive economic crises can be felt on almost every street, with waste pickers trying to eke out a living.

Edith Pereira shows the Aqualane brand moisturizing cream, well known in Argentina, that today is produced by the workers of the Farmacoop cooperative, which has two industrial plants in Buenos Aires, recovered and managed by the workers. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

Edith Pereira shows the Aqualane brand moisturizing cream, well known in Argentina, that today is produced by the workers of the Farmacoop cooperative, which has two industrial plants in Buenos Aires, recovered and managed by the workers. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

“When we entered the plant in 2019, everything was destroyed. There were only cardboard and paper that we sold to earn our first pesos,” says Blácida Martínez.

She used to work in the reception and security section of the company and has found a spot in the cooperative for her 24-year-old son, who is about to graduate as a laboratory technician and works in product quality control.

A new law is needed

Silvia Ayala is the president of the Mielcitas Argentinas cooperative, which brings together 88 workers, mostly women, who run a candy and sweets factory on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where they lost their jobs in mid-2019.

“Today we are grateful that thanks to the cooperative we can put food on our families’ tables,” she says. “There was no other option but to resist, because reinserting ourselves in the labor market is very difficult. Every time a job is offered in Argentina, you see lines of hundreds of people.”

Ayala is also one of the leaders of the National Movement of Recovered Companies, active throughout the country, which is promoting a bill in Congress to regulate employee-run companies, presented in April by the governing Frente de Todos.

“A law would be very important, because when owners abandon their companies we need the recovery to be fast, and we need the collaboration of the State; this is a reality that is here to stay,” says Ayala.

Argentine President Alberto Fernández stands with workers of the Cooperativa Aceitera La Matanza on May 5, when the government presented the Registry of Recovered Companies, which aims to formalize worker-run companies. CREDIT: Casa Rosada

Argentine President Alberto Fernández stands with workers of the Cooperativa Aceitera La Matanza on May 5, when the government presented the Registry of Recovered Companies, which aims to formalize worker-run companies. CREDIT: Casa Rosada

The Ministry of Social Development states that the creation of the Registry is aimed at designing specific public policies and tools to strengthen the production and commercialization of the sector, as well as to formalize workers.

The government defines “recovered” companies as those economic, productive or service units that were originally privately managed and are currently run collectively by their former employees.

Although the presentation was made this month, the Registry began operating in March and has already listed 103 recovered companies, of which 64 belong to the production sector and 35 to the services sector.

The first data provide an indication of the diversity of the companies in terms of size, with the smallest having six workers and the largest 177.

  Source

Reclaiming Our Future

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, COVID-19, Education, Headlines, Inequality, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

BANGKOK, Thailand, May 23 2022 (IPS) – The Asia-Pacific region is at a crossroads today – to further breakdown or breakthrough to a greener, better, safer future.

Since the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) was established in 1947, the region has made extraordinary progress, emerging as a pacesetter of global economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty.


Yet, as ESCAP celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, we find ourselves facing our biggest shared test on the back of cascading and overlapping impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging conflicts and the climate crisis.

Few have escaped the effects of the pandemic, with 85 million people pushed back into extreme poverty, millions more losing their jobs or livelihoods, and a generation of children and young people missing precious time for education and training.

As the pandemic surges and ebbs across countries, the world continues to face the grim implications of failing to keep the temperature increase below 1.5°C – and of continuing to degrade the natural environment. Throughout 2021 and 2022, countries across Asia and the Pacific were again battered by a relentless sequence of natural disasters, with climate change increasing their frequency and intensity.

More recently, the rapidly evolving crisis in Ukraine will have wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts, with higher prices for fuel and food increasing food insecurity and hunger across the region.

Rapid economic growth in Asia and the Pacific has come at a heavy price, and the convergence of these three crises have exposed the fault lines in a very short time. Unfortunately, those hardest hit are those with the fewest resources to endure the hardship. This disproportionate pressure on the poor and most vulnerable is deepening and widening inequalities in both income and opportunities.

The situation is critical. Many communities are close to tipping points beyond which it will be impossible to recover. But it is not too late.

The region is dynamic and adaptable.

In this richer yet riskier world, we need more crisis-prepared policies to protect our most vulnerable populations and shift the Asia-Pacific region back on course to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as the target year of 2030 comes closer — our analysis shows that we are already 35 years behind and will only attain the Goals in 2065.

To do so, we must protect people and the planet, exploit digital opportunities, trade and invest together, raise financial resources and manage our debt.

The first task for governments must be to defend the most vulnerable groups – by strengthening health and universal social protection systems. At the same time, governments, civil society and the private sector should be acting to conserve our precious planet and mitigate and adapt to climate change while defending people from the devastation of natural disasters.

For many measures, governments can exploit technological innovations. Human activities are steadily becoming “digital by default.” To turn the digital divide into a digital dividend, governments should encourage more robust and extensive digital infrastructure and improve access along with the necessary education and training to enhance knowledge-intensive internet use.

Much of the investment for services will rely on sustainable economic growth, fueled by equitable international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). The region is now the largest source and recipient of global FDI flows, which is especially important in a pandemic recovery environment of fiscal tightness.

While trade links have evolved into a complex noodle bowl of bilateral and regional agreements, there is ample scope to further lower trade and investment transaction costs through simplified procedures, digitalization and climate-smart strategies. Such changes are proving to be profitable business strategies. For example, full digital facilitation could cut average trade costs by more than 13 per cent.

Governments can create sufficient fiscal space to allow for greater investment in sustainable development. Additional financial resources can be raised through progressive tax reforms, innovative financing instruments and more effective debt management. Instruments such as green bonds or sustainability bonds, and arranging debt swaps for development, could have the highest impacts on inclusivity and sustainability.

Significant efforts need to be made to anticipate what lies ahead. In everything we do, we must listen to and work with both young and old, fostering intergenerational solidarity. And women must be at the centre of crisis-prepared policy action.

This week the Commission is expected to agree on a common agenda for sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific, pinning the aspirations of the region on moving forward together by learning from and working with each other.

In the past seven-and-a-half decades, ESCAP has been a vital source of know-how and support for the governments and peoples of Asia and the Pacific. We remain ready to serve in the implementation of this common agenda.

To quote United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “the choices we make, or fail to make today, will shape our future. We will not have this chance again.”

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

IPS UN Bureau

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It’s Time To Globalise Compassion, Says Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi

Africa, Child Labour, Conferences, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Child Labour

“I have been talking to leaders of rich countries to address the problem of post-pandemic economic meltdown. We have to work for social protection for marginalised people in low-income countries and focus on children, education, health, and protection. That is not a big investment compared to what we are going to lose – a whole generation.” – Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi addresses the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour. Despite setbacks, he is optimistic that child labour can be abolished. Credit: Cecilia Russell/IPS

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi addresses the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour. Despite setbacks, he is optimistic that child labour can be abolished. Credit: Cecilia Russell/IPS

Durban, May 16 2022 (IPS) – A mere 35 billion US dollars per annum – equivalent to 10 days of military spending – would ensure all children in all countries benefit from social protection, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi told the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour.


He said this was a small price to pay considering the catastrophic consequences of the increase in child labour since 2016, after several years of decline in child labour numbers.

An estimated 160 000 million kids are child labourers, and unless there is a drastic reversal, another 9 million are expected to join their ranks.

Satyarthi was among a distinguished group of panellists on setting global priorities for eliminating child labour. The panel included International Labour Organisation(ILO) DG Guy Ryder, South African Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi, James Quincey, CEO of Coca Cola,  Alliance 8.7 chairperson Anousheh Karver and European Union Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen.

The panel discussed child labour in the context of decent work deficits and youth employment. It identified pressing global challenges and priorities for the international community.

Satyarthi said the 35 million US dollars was far from a big ask. Nor was the 22 billion US dollars needed to ensure education for all children. He said this was the equivalent of what people in the US spent on tobacco over six days.

Satyarthi said it was a travesty that the G7, the world’s wealthiest countries, had never debated child labour – something he intends to change.

The panellists attributed the increase in child labour to several factors, including lack of political will, lack of interest from rich countries and embedded cultural and economic factors.

Asked how he remained optimistic in light of the dismal picture of growing child labour rates. Satyarthi told IPS that having been in the trenches for 40 years, he had seen and been happy to see a decline in child labour until 2016 – when the problem began escalating again.

“I strongly believe in freedom of human beings. The world will slowly move towards a more compassionate society, sometimes faster, sometimes slower,” he said.

Satyarthi, together with organisations like the ILO, succeeded in putting the issue of child labour on the international agenda. Through his foundation in collaboration with other NGOs, he got the world to take note of this hidden scourge.

He is convinced that child labour will be eliminated despite the recent setbacks.

“I am hopeful because there was no ILO programme when I started 40 years ago. Child labour was not recognised as a problem, but slowly, it is being realised that it’s wrong and evil – even a crime. So, 40 years isn’t a big tenure in the history of human beings. This scourge has been there for centuries.”

Yet he recognises the need for urgency to roll back the escalation of child labour.

“The next ten years are even more important because now we have the means, we have power, technology, and we know the solution. The only thing we need is a strong political will but also social will,” Satyarthi said. “We have to speed it up and bring back the hope. Bring back the optimism. The issue is a priority, and that’s why we are calling on markets to globalise compassion. There are many things to divide us, but there’s one thing we all agree on: the well-being of our children.”

Satyarthi said to meet the SDG deadline of 2025, he and other Nobel laureates and world leaders are pushing hard to ensure that child labour starts declining again.

“We as a group of Nobel laureates and world leaders are working on two fronts. One is a fair share for children on budgetary allocations and policies,” he said.

The group engaged with governments to ensure that children received a fair share of the budget and resources.

Then they are pushing governments on social protection, which he believes in demystifying.

“We have seen in different countries, social protection – helping through school feeding schemes, employment programmes and conditional grant programmes to ensure that children can go to school, with proven success in bringing down child labour.”

The Nobel laureate knocked on the doors of the leaders of wealthy nations.

“I have been talking to leaders of rich countries to address the problem of post-pandemic economic meltdown. We have to work for social protection for marginalised people in low-income countries and focus on children, education, health, and protection. That is not a big investment compared to what we are going to lose – a whole generation.”

Satyarthi said he was heartened by the response to their efforts to motivate governments and the private sector to join the fight against child labour.

“I have been optimistic to say many of the governments and EU leaders are not only listening – they are talking about it. Yesterday only, I was so happy that President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke very explicitly on this issue, and almost everyone was talking about this issue. But it took several months, several years to get there.”

And Satyarthi is not going to stop soon. With the Laureates and Leaders For Children project, he and fellow laureates are determined the world sits up and finds the will to ensure every child can experience a childhood.

IPS UN Bureau Report

This is part of a series of stories published by IPS during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in Durban. 

 

Call to Freedom for Millions of Children Trapped in Child Labour as Global Conference to Comes to Africa

Child Labour, Conferences, Education, Featured, Global, Headlines, Humanitarian Emergencies, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Labour

A child beneficiary holding a drawing portraying domestic violence, at the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education, Lilongwe, Malawi which partnered with the ILO/IPEC to support the national action plan aimed at combating child labour. Credit: Marcel Crozet/ILO

A child beneficiary holding a drawing portraying domestic violence, at the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education, Lilongwe, Malawi which partnered with the ILO/IPEC to support the national action plan aimed at combating child labour. Credit: Marcel Crozet/ILO

Nairobi, May 13 2022 (IPS) – Children washing clothes in rivers, begging on the streets, hawking, walking for kilometres in search of water and firewood, their tiny hands competing with older, experienced hands to pick coffee or tea, or as child soldiers are familiar sights in Africa and Asia.


Child rights experts at Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation reiterate that tolerance and normalisation of working children, many of whom work in hazardous conditions and circumstances, and apathy has stalled progress towards the elimination of child labour.

Further warnings include more children in labour across the sub-Saharan Africa region than the rest of the world combined. The continent now falls far behind the collective commitment to end all forms of child labour by 2025.

The International Labour Organization estimates more than 160 million children are in child labour globally.

How to achieve the Sustainable Development Target 8.7 and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour that focuses on its elimination by 2025 will be the subject of the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour to be held in Durban, South Africa, from May 15 to 20, 2022.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to open the conference. He will share the stage with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) chairperson and President of the Republic of Malawi Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, and Argentina President Alberto Ángel Fernández Pérez (virtual).

“There are multiple drivers of child labour in Africa, and many of them are interconnected,” Minoru Ogasawara, Chief Technical Advisor for the Accelerating action for the elimination of child labour in supply chains in Africa (ACCEL Africa) at the International Labour Organization (ILO) tells IPS.

He speaks of the high prevalence of children working in agriculture, closely linked to poverty and family survival strategies.

Rapid population growth, Ogasawara says, has placed significant pressure on public budgets to maintain or increase the level of services required to fight child labour, such as education and social protection.

“Hence the call to substantially increase funding through official development assistance (ODA), national budgets and contributions from the private sector targeting child labour and its root causes,” he observes.

UNICEF says approximately 12 percent of children aged 5 to 14 years are involved in child labour – at the cost of their childhood, education, and future.

Of the 160 million child labourers worldwide, more than half are in sub-Saharan Africa, and 53 million are not in school – amounting to 28 % aged five to 11 and another 35 % aged 12 to 14, according to the most recent child labour global estimates by UNICEF and ILO.

Against this grim backdrop, keynote speakers Nobel Peace Laureates Kailash Satyarthi and Leymah Gbowee and former Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Löfven will address the conference, which is expected to put into perspective how and why children still suffer some of the worst, most severe forms of child labour such as bonded labour, domestic servitude, child soldiers, drug trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

Satyarthi has been at the forefront of mobilising global support to this effect.

“I am working in collaboration with a number of other Nobel Laureates and world leaders. We are demanding the setting up of an international social protection mechanism. During the pandemic, we calculated that $53 billion annually could ensure social protection for all children in all low-income countries, as well as pregnant women too,” Satyarthi emphasises.

“Increased social protection, access to free quality education, health care, decent job opportunities for adults, and basic services together create an enabling environment that reduces household vulnerability to child labour,” Ogasawara stresses.

He points to an urgent need to introduce and or rapidly expand social security and other social protection measures suitable for the informal economy, such as cash transfers, school feeding, subsidies for direct education costs, and health care coverage.

The need for a school-to-work transition and to “target children from poor households, increase access to education while reducing the need to combine school with work among children below the minimum working age” should be highlighted.

In the absence of these social protection safety nets, the  International Labour Organization says it is estimated that an additional 9 million children are at risk of child labour by the end of this year and a possible further increase of 46 million child labourers.

In this context, the fifth global conference presents an opportunity to assess progress made towards achieving the goals of SDG Target 8.7, discuss good practices implemented by different actors around the world and identify gaps and urgent measures needed to accelerate the elimination of both child labour and forced labour.

The timing is crucial, says the ILO, as there are only three years left to achieve the goal of the elimination of all child labour by 2025 and only eight years towards the elimination of forced labour by 2030, as established by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7.

The conference will also see the active participation of young survivor-advocates from India and Africa. They will share their first-person accounts and lived experiences in sync with the core theme of the discussion.

The conference will also take place within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid fears and concerns that ending child labour became less significant on the international agenda as the world coped with the impact of the pandemic. This could reverse the many gains accrued in the fight against child labour, forced labour and child trafficking.

This is the first of a series of stories which IPS will be publishing during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour from May 15 to 20, 2022.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 

In Sri Lanka, Things Fall Apart

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The protestors’ main rallying slogan is ‘GotaGoHome’

LONDON, May 4 2022 (IPS) – When I ended last month’s column hoping that April would not prove to be hapless Sri Lanka’s ‘cruellest month’ (in the words TS Eliot), I hardly anticipated the current turn of events.


In April, the country was to celebrate several ethno-religious festivals. The biggest among them was the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, celebrated by Sri Lanka’s majority community and its main minority. It was also the Muslim month of Ramadan and Easter, commemorated by the Christians.

For over one-and-a-half years Sri Lanka had been grappling with a fast-failing economy. The dwindling of foreign reserves and the consequent shortages of food, medicines, fuel, gas and kerosene for cooking were more recently compounded by power cuts, at times as long as 12hoursper day, bringing manufacturing industries to a standstill and forcing businesses to close down early.

With the country struggling to avert bankruptcy and an unprecedented rise in inflation and spiralling commodity prices, many working-class families, daily wage earners and farmers were facing penury and starvation.

Against this dire background Sri Lanka’s 22 million people were anxiously preparing for the April festivities, wondering whether there would be anything to celebrate.

Then it happened.

On March 31 the residents of Mirihana, a middle- class town on the outskirts of Colombo, held a candle-light protest to highlight the daily power cuts that disrupted their family activities. The protest, initially by women, attracted passers-by and huge crowds from neighbourhood towns and residential areas as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lived in Mirihana in his private residence.

Swelling crowds shouting slogans later clashed with police firing tear gas and water cannons to break up the demonstration, but many of the protestors held their ground till the next day.

The Mirihana protest has sparked the island-wide conflagration that now has the once all-powerful Rajapaksa family-run government teetering on the wall like Humpty Dumpty awaiting a splintering fall. It will remain an important landmark in this uprising, which some have called, rather erroneously, Sri Lanka’s ‘Arab Spring’.

Mirihana began the assault against the Rajapaksa fiefdom that once seemed impregnable. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is president. Brother Mahinda, who served two terms as president, is currently prime minister. Another brother, Basil, a dual citizen with US citizenship and a home in Los Angeles, was until last month finance minister, and the eldest brother Chamal holds the post ofirrigation minister and state minister of security. Mahinda’s eldest son Namal, whom his father sees as heir apparent, was sports and youth affairs minister, among other portfolios.

It appears that the prime minister suspects he is going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency

Together, the family reportedly controlled 72 per cent of government resources, free to use as they deemed fit, even to farm off to their acolytes and business friends in the way of government contracts and import monopolies, even during the Covid pandemic.

Today, however, that fortress of power and privilege appears as exposed as France’s Maginot Line, set to crumble against a German Blitzkrieg.

All the Rajapaksas, except Prime Minister Mahinda, lost their positions last month when President Gotabaya suddenly dissolved the cabinet in a desperate attempt to quell the mounting outrage against him. It seemed a weak moral sidestep, for the protesters’ cry was not only against the president but against the entire Rajapaksa family, which they claimed had dipped their hands into the country’s assets for personal gain.

Mirihana lit the fuse for the enormous protest that flared up at Colombo’s beach-front Galle Face Green, right opposite the Presidential Secretariat from where political power radiated. It was this that breached the Rajapaksa citadel.

Economists urged the government seek IMF assistance

At the time of writing, this protest – which shows signs of unifying the country’s multiracial, multi-religious society and has drawn crowds of all ages and a wide cross-section of the Sri Lankan community, including the professional classes – has entered its 17thcontinuous day, with hundreds of protesters camped there day and night despite the heat and rain.

Yet it is no Arab Spring. It is an orderly, non-violent protest, mainly of youth of all shades, with an inventive genius to keep themselves and their cause alive.

Never in Sri Lanka’s 74 years of post-independence history has the country seen anything like this, even though anti-government protests are nothing new to the country, which has seen Leftist political parties and associated trade unions functioning even under British colonial rule.

The main rallying slogan is ‘GotaGoHome’, telling Gotabaya to return to his home – also in Los Angeles –though he relinquished his US citizenship to be eligible to contest the presidential election in November 2019.

Built round that slogan are a myriad other satirical comments in song, verse, caricatures, cartoons and videos, the creative work of the protesters deriding the Rajapaksas, some demanding they return the country’s supposedly stolen assets and otherwise accumulated wealth in tax havens.

Although the protesters are now demanding that the whole Rajapaksa family pack their bags and quit, the main target quite rightly is President Gotabaya. It was his military arrogance – having played a role in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in 2009, under the leadership of his president brother Mahinda – and his ignorance of politics and governance, and over-reliance on incompetent advisers that started the economic rot.

With a group of retired and serving military men appointed to key civilian positions and a coterie of so-called intellectuals and businessmen as advisers, he plunged head-first into economic policy decisions.

Within a few days of assuming office, he had slashed VAT from 15 per cent to 8per cent and abolished some other taxes that cost the state a whopping 28 per cent in revenue. It led the Central Bank to print money feverishly to meet budgetary commitments, causing inflation.

Also disastrous was the overnight decision to ban chemical fertilisers that drove farmers to burn effigies of ministers and demonstrate on the streets, demanding restitution of their fertiliser needs or face food insecurity in the months ahead, forcing a once adamant president to retract.

While economists had foreseen the impending danger in depleting foreign reserves and international debt repayments this year, and hence urged the government seek IMF assistance, the president clung steadfastly to the advice of the Central Bank Governor and the Treasury Secretary, among others, who dismissed the idea for more than one year even ignoring cabinet support for IMF help.

In a belated gesture, President Gotabaya sacked the two officials immediately after replacing his cabinet with younger, untested MPs. He sent his new finance minister to Washington to plead with the IMF for immediate relief.

The president is hoping for political concessions he has agreed to – including returning to parliament and the prime minister powers that he usurped on coming to office through the 20thconstitutional amendment. He has now agreed to form an interim All Party government.

But one sees a growing rift in the once close-knit family. Names proposed by Prime Minister Mahinda for the new cabinet were ignored by his brother, causing the prime minister to boycott the swearing-in of the new ministers.

If the president opts for an interim government, it means he has decided to stay put but call for the prime minister’s resignation. It would appear that the prime minister suspects he is going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

In an interview the other day, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that he will not resign and any reconstituted government must be under his leadership. In the meantime, he has been trying to whip up support against his ouster by canvassing MPs to muster the required 113 votes.

How the protesting public will react to all these political manipulations will depend on what is on offer. Right now, they are determined to continue until President Gotabaya surrenders, which seems unlikely.

Source: Asian Affairs, London

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.

IPS UN Bureau

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Indigenous Women in Mexico Take United Stance Against Inequality

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Women & Economy

Every other Tuesday, a working group of Mayan women meets to review the organization and progress of their food saving and production project in Uayma, in the state of Yucatán in southeastern Mexico. CREDIT: Courtesy of the Ko'ox Tani Foundation

Every other Tuesday, a working group of Mayan women meets to review the organization and progress of their food saving and production project in Uayma, in the state of Yucatán in southeastern Mexico. CREDIT: Courtesy of the Ko’ox Tani Foundation

UAYMA, Mexico , Apr 26 2022 (IPS) – Every other Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. sharp, a group of 26 Mexican women meet for an hour to discuss the progress of their work and immediate tasks. Anyone who arrives late must pay a fine of about 25 cents on the dollar.


The collective has organized in the municipality of Uayma (which means “Not here” in the Mayan language) to learn agroecological practices, as well as how to save money and produce food for family consumption and the sale of surpluses.

“We have to be responsible. With savings we can do a little more,” María Petul, a married Mayan indigenous mother of two and a member of the group “Lool beh” (“Flower of the road” in Mayan), told IPS in this municipality of just over 4,000 inhabitants, 1,470 kilometers southeast of Mexico City in the state of Yucatán, on the Yucatán peninsula.

The home garden “gives me enough to eat and sell, it helps me out,” said Petul as she walked through her small garden where she grows habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense, traditional in the area), radishes and tomatoes, surrounded by a few trees, including a banana tree whose fruit will ripen in a few weeks and some chickens that roam around the earthen courtyard.

The face of Norma Tzuc, who is also married with two daughters, lights up with enthusiasm when she talks about the project. “I am very happy. We now have an income. It’s exciting to be able to help my family. Other groups already have experience and tell us about what they’ve been doing,” Tzuc told IPS.

The two women and the rest of their companions, whose mother tongue is Mayan, participate in the project “Women saving to address climate change”, run by the non-governmental Ko’ox Tani Foundation (“Let’s Go Ahead”, in Mayan), dedicated to community development and social inclusion, based in Merida, the state capital.

This phase of the project is endowed with some 100,000 dollars from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the non-binding environmental arm of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), formed in 1994 by Canada, the United States and Mexico and replaced in 2020 by another trilateral agreement.

The initiative got off the ground in February and will last two years, with the aim of training some 250 people living in extreme poverty, mostly women, in six locations in the state of Yucatán.

The maximum savings for each woman in the group is about 12 dollars every two weeks and the minimum is 2.50 dollars, and they can withdraw the accumulated savings to invest in inputs or animals, or for emergencies, with the agreement of the group. Through the project, the women will receive seeds, agricultural inputs and poultry, so that they can install vegetable gardens and chicken coops on their land.

The women write down the quotas in a white notebook and deposit the savings in a gray box, kept in the house of the group’s president.

José Torre, project director of the Ko’ox Tani Foundation, explained that the main areas of entrepreneurship are: community development, food security, livelihoods and human development.

“What we have seen over time is that the savings meetings become a space for human development, in which they find support and solidarity from their peers, make friends and build trust,” he told IPS during a tour of the homes of some of the savings group participants in Uayma.

The basis for the new initiative in this locality is a similar program implemented between 2018 and 2021 in other Yucatecan municipalities, in which the organization worked with 1400 families.

María Petul, a Mayan indigenous woman, plants chili peppers, tomatoes, radishes and medicinal herbs in the vegetable garden in the courtyard of her home in Uayma, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

María Petul, a Mayan indigenous woman, plants chili peppers, tomatoes, radishes and medicinal herbs in the vegetable garden in the courtyard of her home in Uayma, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Unequal oasis

Yucatan, a region home to 2.28 million people, suffers from a high degree of social backwardness, with 34 percent of the population living in moderate poverty, 33 percent suffering unmet needs, 5.5 percent experiencing income vulnerability and almost seven percent living in extreme poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic that hit this Latin American country in February 2020 exacerbated these conditions in a state that depends on agriculture, tourism and services, similar to the other two states that make up the Yucatán Peninsula: Campeche and Quintana Roo.

Inequality is also a huge problem in the state, although the Gini Index dropped from 0.51 in 2014 to 0.45, according to a 2018 government report, based on data from 2016 (the latest year available). The Gini coefficient, where 1 indicates the maximum inequality and 0 the greatest equality, is used to calculate income inequality.

The situation of indigenous women is worse, as they face marginalization, discrimination, violence, land dispossession and lack of access to public services.

More than one million indigenous people live in the state.

Women participating in a project funded by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation record their savings in a white notebook and deposit them in a gray box. Mayan indigenous woman Norma Tzuc belongs to a group taking part in the initiative in Uayma, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Women participating in a project funded by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation record their savings in a white notebook and deposit them in a gray box. Mayan indigenous woman Norma Tzuc belongs to a group taking part in the initiative in Uayma, in the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Climate crisis, yet another vulnerability

Itza Castañeda, director of equity at the non-governmental World Resources Institute (WRI), highlights the persistence of structural inequalities in the peninsula that exacerbate the effects of the climate crisis.

“In the three states there is greater inequality between men and women. This stands in the way of women’s participation and decision-making. Furthermore, the existing evidence shows that there are groups in conditions of greater vulnerability to climate impacts,” she told IPS from the city of Tepoztlán, near Mexico City.

She added that “climate change accentuates existing inequalities, but a differentiated impact assessment is lacking.”

Official data indicate that there are almost 17 million indigenous people in Mexico, representing 13 percent of the total population, of which six million are women.

Of indigenous households, almost a quarter are headed by women, while 65 percent of indigenous girls and women aged 12 and over perform unpaid work compared to 35 percent of indigenous men – a sign of the inequality in the system of domestic and care work.

To add to their hardships, the Yucatan region is highly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, such as droughts, devastating storms and rising sea levels. In June 2021, tropical storm Cristobal caused the flooding of Uayma, where three women’s groups are operating under the savings system.

For that reason, the project includes a risk management and hurricane early warning system.

The Mexican government is building a National Care System, but the involvement of indigenous women and the benefits for them are still unclear.

Petul looks excitedly at the crops planted on her land and dreams of a larger garden, with more plants and more chickens roaming around, and perhaps a pig to be fattened. She also thinks about the possibility of emulating women from previous groups who have set up small stores with their savings.

“They will lay eggs and we can eat them or sell them. With the savings we can also buy roosters, in the market chicks are expensive,” said Petul, brimming with hope, who in addition to taking care of her home and family sells vegetables.

Her neighbor Tzuc, who until now has been a homemaker, said that the women in her group have to take into account the effects of climate change. “It has been very hot, hotter than before, and there is drought. Fortunately, we have water, but we have to take care of it,” she said.

For his part, Torre underscored the results of the savings groups. The women “left extreme poverty behind. The pandemic hit hard, because there were families who had businesses and stopped selling. The organization gave them resilience,” he said.

In addition, a major achievement is that the households that have already completed the project continue to save, regularly attend meetings and have kept producing food.

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