Amazon deforestation, once tamed, comes roaring back

The New York Times reports: A few months ago, a representative from Cargill traveled to this remote colony in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands in the southernmost reaches of the vast Amazon River basin with an enticing offer.

The American agricultural giant wanted to buy soybeans from the Mennonite residents, descendants of European peasants who had been carving settlements out of the thick forest for more than 40 years. The company would finance a local warehouse and weighing station so farmers could sell their produce directly to Cargill on-site, the man said, according to local residents.

One of those farmers, Heinrich Janzen, was clearing woodland from a 37-acre plot he bought late last year, hustling to get soy in the ground in time for a May harvest. “Cargill wants to buy from us,” said Mr. Janzen, 38, as bluish smoke drifted from heaps of smoldering vegetation.

His soy is in demand. Cargill is one of several agricultural traders vying to buy from soy farmers in the region, he said.

Cargill confirmed the accounts of colony residents, and said the company was still assessing whether it would source from the community. That decision would depend on a study of the area’s productivity and land titles, said Hugo Krajnc, Cargill’s corporate affairs leader for the Southern Cone, based in Argentina. “But if a farmer has burned down its forest we’ll not source from that grower,” he said.

A decade after the “Save the Rainforest” movement forced changes that dramatically slowed deforestation across the Amazon basin, activity is roaring back in some of the biggest expanses of forests in the world. That resurgence, driven by the world’s growing appetite for soy and other agricultural crops, is raising the specter of a backward slide in efforts to preserve biodiversity and fight climate change. [Continue reading…]

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Havana in mourning: ‘We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not Communist’

The Guardian reports: Cuba woke to the news of Fidel Castro’s death with a mixture of shock, grief and uncertainty about the new era it might usher in.

With very few homes connected to the internet, most people found out by television or radio, though many were asleep when the announcement was made.

Castro died at 10:29pm on Friday, but it was not until more than an hour later that the Cuban public were informed in a midnight broadcast by the president, Raul Castro.

The news was not unexpected. In his final months, the elderly comandante had said goodbye in thinly veiled public statements. But for many – particularly those who had lived through the 1960s – it was still a shock.

In a southern suburb of the city, the Rodríguez family watched in a stunned silence that continued long after the broadcast had ended. “El Caballo is dead,” said Leo Rodríguez, finally, referring to Castro by his nickname of “The Horse”, as his voice cracked with emotion.

The airport worker is a devoted Fidelista who still drapes a revolutionary flag from his apartment window on national day. He met his wife Clarita at the Union of Young Communists. They credit the government for subsidised housing, free university education and free healthcare, which is of particular importance to their daughter who needs to see a doctor every two weeks for treatment of a chronic condition.

Given such benefits, they expect huge crowds to gather at the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución to show their respect. “The plaza will be overflowing,” Clarita predicted.

Their neighbour was also shocked. Like many in her generation, 36-year-old Mariana Valdés hates the restrictions imposed on free speech and Cuba and has long wished the “dictatorship” would collapse. But she was in tears when she heard the news. “Of course I’m crying,” she said. “We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not Communist.” [Continue reading…]

Richard Gott writes: The return to power by coup d’etat in 1952 of the old dictator, Fulgencio Batista, seemed to rule out the traditional road to political power for the young lawyer, and an impatient Castro embraced the cause of insurrection, common in those years in the unstable countries that bordered the Caribbean. On 26 July 1953, he led a group of revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the dictator by seizing the second largest military base in the country, the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

The attack was a dismal failure, and many of the erstwhile rebels were captured and killed. Castro himself survived, to make a notable speech from the dock – “history will absolve me” – outlining his political programme. It became the classic text of the 26th of July Movement that he was later to organise, using the failed Moncada attack as a rallying cry to unite the anti-Batista opposition into a single political force.

Granted an amnesty two years later, Castro was exiled to Mexico. With his brother Raúl, he prepared a group of armed fighters to assist the civilian resistance movement. Soon he had met and enrolled in his band an Argentinian doctor, Che Guevara, whose name was to be irrevocably linked to the revolution. Castro’s tiny force sailed from Mexico to Cuba in December 1956 in the Granma, a small and leaky motor vessel. Landing in the east of the island after a rough crossing, the rebel band was attacked and almost annihilated by Batista’s forces. A few members of Castro’s troop survived to struggle up the impenetrable mountains of the Sierra Maestra. There they tended their wounds, regained their strength, made contact with the local peasants, and established links with the opposition in the city of Santiago.

Throughout 1957 and 1958, Castro’s guerrilla band grew in strength and daring. They had no blueprint. Their first aim had been to survive. Only later did revolutionary theorists develop the notion that the very existence of an armed struggle in rural areas might help to define the course of civilian politics, putting the dictatorship on to the defensive, and forcing squabbling opposition groups to unite behind the guerrilla banner. Yet that is what took place in Cuba. Civilian parties and opposition movements were forced to accept orders from the guerrillas in the hills, and even the conservative and unadventurous Communist party of Cuba eventually came to bow the knee to Castro in the summer of 1958. By December that year, Guevara had captured the central city of Santa Clara, and on New Year’s Eve, Batista fled the country. In January 1959, Castro, aged 30, arrived in triumph in Havana. The Cuban revolution had begun.

His early programme was one of radical reform, comparable to that espoused by populist governments in Latin America over the previous 30 years. The expropriation of large estates, the nationalisation of foreign enterprises and the establishment of schools and clinics throughout the island were the initial demands of his movement.

Like most Latin American leftwingers at that time, Castro was influenced by Marxism – whatever that might mean in the Latin American context, about which Marx himself had little to say. In practice it meant a warm feeling for the (far away) Russian revolution, and a strong dislike of (nearby) Yankee “imperialism”. Radicals were familiar with the historical tendency of the US to interfere in Latin America in general and Cuba in particular – economically all the time and militarily at all too frequent intervals. This leftist inclination did not usually involve much enthusiasm for the local Communist party which, in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America (except in Chile), had always been small and lacking influence. Castro himself was not a communist, though his brother had strong sympathies, as did Guevara. [Continue reading…]

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Former president who fought Colombia’s peace deal holds key to its future

The Wall Street Journal reports: Álvaro Uribe found the bullet-riddled body of his father at the family’s farm in 1983. Rebels from the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, had killed him in a kidnapping attempt.

When he became Colombia’s president 19 years later, Mr. Uribe targeted the FARC with a military offensive. Then this weekend, more than anyone else, he helped scuttle the nationwide referendum that would have sealed a peace treaty between his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the Marxist rebel group.

The stunning outcome thrusts Mr. Uribe, now 64 years old and a senator, into a central role shaping what will happen next. Some Colombians see him as the only person who can renegotiate the deal in a way to convince skeptics it isn’t too lenient toward rebels who have gripped Colombia in conflict for 52 years.

Late Sunday night, Mr. Santos said all the political players — a pointed reference to Mr. Uribe, a one-time political ally — would need to “decide among us all what is the path we should take.” The rebels, speaking from Havana, said they wouldn’t return to the battlefield and want to pursue peace.

On Monday, the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londoño, called on the peace pact to proceed and said it couldn’t be undone despite Sunday’s vote. “Peace with dignity arrived and will remain,” he said.

Mr. Uribe also sounded magnanimous after the results were announced. He said all Colombians “want peace, no one wants violence.” He called for protection for the FARC rebels who have expressed fear of being targeted by right-wing gunmen and he said his Democratic Center party wants “to contribute to a national accord” on the question of resolving the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Colombia peace deal is defeated, leaving a nation in shock

The New York Times reports: A Colombian peace deal that the president and the country’s largest rebel group had signed just days before was defeated in a referendum on Sunday, leaving the fate of a 52-year war suddenly uncertain.

A narrow margin divided the yes-or-no vote, with 50.2 percent of Colombians rejecting the peace deal and 49.8 percent voting in favor, the government said.

The result was a deep embarrassment for President Juan Manuel Santos. Just last week, Mr. Santos had joined arms with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, who apologized on national television during a signing ceremony.

The surprise surge by the “no” vote — nearly all major polls had indicated resounding approval — left the country in a dazed uncertainty not seen since Britain voted in June to leave the European Union. And it left the future of rebels who had planned to rejoin Colombia as civilians — indeed, the future of the war itself, which both sides had declared over — unknown.

Both sides vowed they would not go back to fighting.

Mr. Santos, who appeared humbled by the vote on television on Sunday, said the cease-fire that his government had signed with the FARC would remain in effect. He added that he would soon “convene all political groups,” especially those against the deal, “to open spaces for dialogue and determine how we will go ahead.”

Rodrigo Londoño, the FARC leader, who was preparing to return to Colombia after four years of negotiations in Havana, said he, too, was not interested in more war. [Continue reading…]

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Che Guevara era in Latin America closes as FARC signs peace deal with Colombian government

The Guardian reports: In their 52-year fight against the Colombian state, Farc rebels used assault rifles, shrapnel-filled gas canisters, homemade landmines and mortar shells.

Those weapons are now set to be silenced forever as part of a historic peace deal with the government, to be signed on Monday. Once the demobilisation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is complete, their arsenal will be melted down into three monuments that will mark the end of Latin America’s longest-running conflict – and decades of armed uprisings in the region.

“This is an agreement with the last of the great guerrilla movements that emerged in the context of the cold war,” said Gonzalo Sánchez, director of the National Centre of Historical Memory in Bogotá. “There might be other episodes, but strategically the armed project, the armed utopia, is closing its cycle with Farc.”

Like many other Marxist and Maoist followers of the “armed struggle”, the Farc were inspired by the audacious exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who set out to Cuba on the rickety fishing vessel Granma with just 80 men in 1956, and went on to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista three years later.

It was certainly not the first armed rebellion in Latin America, which had witnessed numerous bloody independence campaigns against Spain in the 19th century and a smattering of communist militias in the 1940s. But the Cuban rebels’ success ignited a fresh blaze of revolutionary fervour across the continent that was fuelled by cold war politics, military coups, US backing for rightwing dictators and the murderous suppression of more moderate leftwing activists. [Continue reading…]

 

Jonathan Glennie writes: Assuming Colombia does vote for peace, there are three priorities.

First, a huge peace dividend must be felt by all sections of society. Those who have suffered under the poverty and inequality that has accompanied the prolonged civil war need to feel this most. Then there will be the “no” voters, who still need convincing that a decisive rejection of violent conflict is the best way forward for Colombia, and who could yet stand in the way of a successful peace.

Second, the already significant focus on improved governance, accountability and democratic institutions must continue. These areas have suffered greatly as people of violence have taken control of important levers of power. Only gradually, and with care, can corruption be rooted out.

Finally, a focus on security is needed. The development sector has sometimes failed to appreciate the importance of investing in policing and security interventions. However, in a post-conflict situation where people are expecting less violence but the threat of more is just around the corner, security has to be a key priority. It is incredibly difficult to get right – especially as Colombia’s security services have themselves been strongly implicated in corrupt and violent practices – but it cannot be ignored.

For these reasons and many others, the international community will be needed more than ever if Colombians vote “si”. Rather than exiting the scene as though the job were done, international agencies – both official and non-governmental – should be doubling or tripling their presence and levels of investment. The history of Colombia and of countless other conflict countries shows that a return to violence of some kind is, depressingly, a likely scenario. [Continue reading…]

 

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Venezuela’s democratic façade has completely crumbled

Moisés Naim and Francisco Toro write: Today, Venezuela is the sick man of Latin America, buckling under chronic shortages of everything from food and toilet paper to medicine and freedom. Riots and looting have become commonplace, as hungry people vent their despair while the revolutionary elite lives in luxury, pausing now and then to order recruits to fire more tear gas into crowds desperate for food.

Not long ago, the regime that Hugo Chávez founded was an object of fascination for progressives worldwide, attracting its share of another-world-is-possible solidarity activists. Today, as the country sinks deeper into the Western Hemisphere’s most intractable political and economic crisis, the time has come to ask some hard questions about how this regime — so obviously thuggish in hindsight — could have conned so many international observers for so long.

Chávez was either admired as a progressive visionary who gave voice to the poor or dismissed as just another third-world buffoon. Reality was more complex than that: Chávez pioneered a new playbook for how to bask in global admiration even as he hollowed out democratic institutions on the sly. [Continue reading…]

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Will Latin America finally rebuke Venezuela?

Christopher Sabatini writes: At least on paper, both Europe and the Americas seem equally committed to being democracies-only clubs, willing to defend and preserve the rule of law in member nations. In practice, however, it may be unfair to compare the perplexing web of regional Latin American organizations with the European Union. The juxtaposition of the EU’s recent statement of concern over the rule of law in Poland and the long-overdue response by Latin American and Caribbean governments to the decades-long political crisis festering in Venezuela is a striking case in point.

On June 1, after more than five months of discussion with the Polish government elected in October 2015, the European Commission issued an opinion expressing its concerns over the new conservative government’s packing of the country’s constitutional tribunal and changes to the public broadcasting law.

Compared to Venezuela, which has suffered from a steady two-decade-long erosion of its democratic checks and balances, Poland’s peccadilloes are pretty small stuff. Since his assumption of the presidency in 1999, former president Hugo Chávez and then his handpicked successor Nicolas Maduro (elected with a slim 1.5 percent margin in 2013 after Chávez died from cancer), have diminished democratic institutions, politicized the state, harassed and imprisoned political opponents, and closed down independent media.

There appeared a slight ray of hope in December 2015 when the unified opposition bloc — defying a biased electoral system — won what appeared to be a super majority of two-thirds of the National Assembly.

The hope, though, was short-lived. Before the new legislature could be seated, the pro-government electoral commission refused to accept the victories of the deputies from Amazonas province (three of whom were opposition and one Chavista), alleging pre-electoral violations, thus denying the opposition its super majority.

The only constitutional means of resolving the country’s deep polarization and the unpopularity of the government is a recall referendum triggered by 20 percent of voters. Earlier this year, citizens collected several million signatures requesting such a referendum. The effort, though, has been mocked by the president and vice president and the decision of whether to allow citizens to continue to collect more signatures is in the hands of the solidly pro-government electoral commission (the Comisión National Electoral — CNE).

Venezuela’s slide into authoritarianism has elicited hardly a collective peep from the region’s many multilateral organizations, almost all of them purporting to defend democracy and human rights. In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean may have the distinction of being the most heavily networked, multi-lateralized, summit-oriented region in the world. There’s the 70-year-old Organization of American States (OAS) and its inter-American system of human rights, the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR), and the more recent creations of the Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) — all of which count Venezuela as a member, and are supposedly committed to defending and protecting democracy and human rights. [Continue reading…]

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Venezuelans ransack stores as hunger grips the nation

The New York Times reports: With delivery trucks under constant attack, the nation’s food is now transported under armed guard. Soldiers stand watch over bakeries. The police fire rubber bullets at desperate mobs storming grocery stores, pharmacies and butcher shops. A 4-year-old girl was shot to death as street gangs fought over food.

Venezuela is convulsing from hunger.

Hundreds of people here in the city of Cumaná, home to one of the region’s independence heroes, marched on a supermarket in recent days, screaming for food. They forced open a large metal gate and poured inside. They snatched water, flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar, potatoes, anything they could find, leaving behind only broken freezers and overturned shelves.

And they showed that even in a country with the largest oil reserves in the world, it is possible for people to riot because there is not enough food.

In the last two weeks alone, more than 50 food riots, protests and mass looting have erupted around the country. Scores of businesses have been stripped bare or destroyed. At least five people have been killed. [Continue reading…]

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Behind Venezuela’s looming collapse

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Venezuela has become a starvation state

Raúl Stolk writes: Hugo Chávez has been dead for more than three years, and the results of his irresponsible fiscal policies and criminally despotic rule have finally come to light in the form of pain and misery.

Images of Hospitals that look like catacombs, and prisons that have become maximum security business centers for criminals where no law applies, have become a reference when speaking about the country. But the wound goes much deeper than that.

We’re not just talking about shortages of basic staples such as toilet paper and soap, or daily electricity cuts, the five-day weekends for public employees, or about any of those stories that have turned Venezuela into a punchline with a seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council. No. The economic collapse at the hands of chavista economic policies has brought something deadlier, and so much simpler: hunger. [Continue reading…]

Folha De S. Paulo reports: It’s midday on this Thursday, and hundreds of people are squeezing inside a supermarket in Ocumare, a poor city about an hour’s drive south of Caracas. Armed police officers are allowing people in, but just a few at a time, infuriating the multitude massed outside since dawn to buy corn flour at a government regulated price.

As tensions mount, one policeman on a motorbike accelerates towards the crowd, forcing people to scatter.

“We’re hungry, you wretches,” a woman screams.

A young man yells: “Let’s storm the shop!”

Just 500 meters away, another line is forming outside a bank that has only just opened. It had been closed all morning due to electricity rationing. Most of the people waiting outside the branch are retired. They want to withdraw pension payments that were deposited this morning. Whenever a bank teller comes towards the door to receive the next client, people scream at each other and jostle. In one of the tensest moments, two men even exchange punches.

“Nobody can take this anymore,” says manicurist Amelia Rivas, 42. “There’s a shortage of food, of electricity, of water, of security.” Her distress is palpable. And it’s shared by just about everyone as the country’s already severe economic and social crisis deepens further still. [Continue reading…]

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How to hack an election

Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the confessions of Andrés Sepúlveda, a political hacker who rigged elections throughout Latin America for almost a decade: His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Campaigns mentioned in this story were contacted through former and current spokespeople; none but Mexico’s PRI and the campaign of Guatemala’s National Advancement Party would comment.

As a child, he witnessed the violence of Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas. As an adult, he allied with a right wing emerging across Latin America. He believed his hacking was no more diabolical than the tactics of those he opposed, such as Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega.

Many of Sepúlveda’s efforts were unsuccessful, but he has enough wins that he might be able to claim as much influence over the political direction of modern Latin America as anyone in the 21st century. “My job was to do actions of dirty war and psychological operations, black propaganda, rumors — the whole dark side of politics that nobody knows exists but everyone can see,” he says in Spanish, while sitting at a small plastic table in an outdoor courtyard deep within the heavily fortified offices of Colombia’s attorney general’s office. He’s serving 10 years in prison for charges including use of malicious software, conspiracy to commit crime, violation of personal data, and espionage, related to hacking during Colombia’s 2014 presidential election. He has agreed to tell his full story for the first time, hoping to convince the public that he’s rehabilitated — and gather support for a reduced sentence.

Usually, he says, he was on the payroll of Juan José Rendón, a Miami-based political consultant who’s been called the Karl Rove of Latin America. Rendón denies using Sepúlveda for anything illegal, and categorically disputes the account Sepúlveda gave Bloomberg Businessweek of their relationship, but admits knowing him and using him to do website design. “If I talked to him maybe once or twice, it was in a group session about that, about the Web,” he says. “I don’t do illegal stuff at all. There is negative campaigning. They don’t like it — OK. But if it’s legal, I’m gonna do it. I’m not a saint, but I’m not a criminal.” While Sepúlveda’s policy was to destroy all data at the completion of a job, he left some documents with members of his hacking teams and other trusted third parties as a secret “insurance policy.”

Sepúlveda provided Bloomberg Businessweek with what he says are e-mails showing conversations between him, Rendón, and Rendón’s consulting firm concerning hacking and the progress of campaign-related cyber attacks. Rendón says the e-mails are fake. An analysis by an independent computer security firm said a sample of the e-mails they examined appeared authentic. Some of Sepúlveda’s descriptions of his actions match published accounts of events during various election campaigns, but other details couldn’t be independently verified. One person working on the campaign in Mexico, who asked not to be identified out of fear for his safety, substantially confirmed Sepúlveda’s accounts of his and Rendón’s roles in that election.

Sepúlveda says he was offered several political jobs in Spain, which he says he turned down because he was too busy. On the question of whether the U.S. presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. “I’m 100 percent sure it is,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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Women of the Amazon defend their homeland against new oil contract

Emily Arasim and Osprey Orielle Lake report: In late January 2016, the government of Ecuador signed a controversial contract with Chinese oil company Andes Petroleum, handing over rights to explore and drill for oil deep in the country’s pristine southeastern Amazon Rainforest, known and revered by many as “the lungs of the Earth.”

For decades, Indigenous communities of the southern Ecuadorian Amazon have successfully fought to protect their land from encroachment by oil companies, engaging in local action and international policymaking and campaigns with a powerful message of respect for the Earth’s natural laws and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

At the forefront of this ongoing struggle are courageous Indigenous Amazonian women leaders who have declared, “We are ready to protect, defend and die for our forest, families, territory and nation.”

In marches, protests, conferences and international forums, the women of the Ecuadorian Amazon are standing with fierce love and conviction for the forests and their communities, and navigating a brutal intersection of environmental devastation, cultural dislocation and violence and persecution as women human rights and land defenders.

The women have repeatedly put their bodies on the frontline in an attempt to halt oil extraction across the Amazon, often facing harsh repression by the state security. [Continue reading…]

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Peru’s untold stories of forced sterilisation are being heard at last

By Matthew Brown, University of Bristol and Karen Tucker, University of Bristol

During the 1990s, thousands of Peru’s citzens were sterilised without their consent as part of a National Population Programme. Brought in by President Alberto Fujimori, this programme was supposed to offer all Peruvians access to a range of contraception options. But it also extended to mass forcible sterilisations. At least 17 people subjected to sterilisation died as a result of botched operations carried out with indifference or without adequate care.

For the last 15 years these abuses have been known only to a small group of people, even as Peru has taken pains to face up to the violence of its recent history.

The Peruvian state spent the 1990s waging a merciless war against guerrilla groups that sought to destroy it – among them the radical Marxist group Shining Path – and hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted.

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Tribes in peril

Heather Pringle writes: In a spacious, art-filled apartment in Brasília, 75-year-old Sydney Possuelo takes a seat near a large portrait of his younger self. On the canvas, Possuelo stares with calm assurance from the stern of an Amazon riverboat, every bit the famous sertanista, or Amazon frontiersman, that he once was. But on this late February morning, that confidence is nowhere to be seen. Possuelo, now sporting a beard neatly trimmed for city life, seethes with anger over the dangers now threatening the Amazon’s isolated tribespeople. “These are the last few groups of humans who are really free,” he says. “But we will kill them.”

For decades, Possuelo worked for Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the federal agency responsible for the country’s indigenous peoples. In the 1970s and 1980s, he and other sertanistas made contact with isolated tribespeople so they could be moved off their land and into settlements. But Possuelo and others grew alarmed by the human toll. The newly contacted had no immunity to diseases carried by outsiders, and the flu virus, he recalls, “was like a suicide bomber,” stealing into a village unnoticed. Among some groups, 50% to 90% died (see sidebar, p. 1084). In 1987, Possuelo and fellow sertanistas met to try to stop this devastation.

In Brasília, a futuristic city whose central urban footprint evokes the shape of an airplane, the frontiersmen agreed that contact was inherently damaging to isolated tribespeople. They drew up a new action plan for FUNAI, based solidly on the principle of no contact unless groups faced extinction. They recommended mapping and legally recognizing the territories of isolated groups, and keeping out loggers, miners, and settlers. If contact proved unavoidable, protecting tribespeople’s health should be top priority.

The recommendations became FUNAI policy, and a model for other countries where isolated populations are emerging, such as neighboring Peru (see companion story, p. 1072). In remote regions, FUNAI has designated a dozen “protection fronts” — official front lines in the battle to defend isolated groups, each dotted with one or more frontier bases to track tribes and sound the alarm when outsiders invade. In an interview in February, FUNAI’s interim president, Flávio Chiarelli, told Science that his agency is “doing great” at protecting the country’s isolated tribes.

But some experts say that as the pace of economic activity in the Amazon accelerates, the protection system that was once the envy of South America is falling apart. [Continue reading…]

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How Colombia plans to turn 32,000 ex-jungle-dwelling guerrillas into useful members of society

Jack Aldwinckle reports: A bloody civil war has gripped Colombia for over fifty years. The conflict has pitched left-wing guerrilla groups such as the FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups, and government security forces against one another. Over 220,000 people have been killed and 6.7 million have been officially recognised as victims—most of them civilians. In 2003 president Álvaro Uribe entered negotiations with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary group, which led to its disbanding. Thirty-six thousand paramilitaries demobilised in the following three years. In 2012 Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, began peace negotiations with the FARC, which are continuing in Havana.

Since the reintegration programme started in 2003 57,082 combatants have demobilized (pdf), of whom 47,944 (84%) decided to take part in the reintegration process. Of those, 8,916 people have now graduated from the program, which can take up to six-and-a-half years to complete. 27,451 fighters are currently part of the scheme — attending classes and meetings in the 120 municipalities where the ACR has a presence.

Attention is now focused on Havana, where the Colombian government is locked in fragile peace negotiations with the FARC. An agreement would bring a formal end to the country’s civil war and would vindicate president Santos, who has staked his reputation on the peace process. It would also involve demobilizing up to 32,000 former guerrillas. That presents the ACR with arguably the biggest challenge it has faced. [Continue reading…]

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Honor comes late to Óscar Romero, a martyr for the poor

From San Salvador, Elisabeth Maklin reports: María de los Angeles Mena Alvarado knelt at the tomb of the slain archbishop and wept.

She had come to the crypt of the city’s cathedral to pray for a cure for the diabetes that was threatening her eyesight and weakening her kidneys. “I feel that, yes, he can perform a miracle,” said Ms. Mena, 62.

Thirty-five years after Óscar Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated with a single bullet as he said Mass in a modest chapel here, this small country is celebrating his beatification on Saturday, the final step before sainthood.

For many here and in the rest of Latin America, though, Archbishop Romero is already a saint.

His tireless advocacy for the poor resonates deeply in a region where the gulf between those with riches and those without remains vast. He was the champion of impoverished Salvadorans, his homilies and radio broadcasts giving voice to their struggles. And as political violence battered the country and death squads killed any activist who challenged the existing order, the archbishop was defiant. [Continue reading…]

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Playing for Palestine

Ismail Khalidi writes: As you enter through its main gate under a pair of fluttering Palestinian flags, the Cisterna municipal stadium looks like any run-down soccer field in the West Bank or the Jordan Valley. The parking lot is unpaved and the cars entering for the afternoon game send up yellow clouds of dust. The stadium itself is simple and small, an outdated concrete bowl that officially holds 12,000 people (though, according to statistics, rarely more than a few thousand), most of whom sit on concrete bleachers that encircle the pitch. The concentric rows of stone bleachers even seem to conjure the ancient terraced slopes of Palestine, where for millennia farmers have sculpted the hillsides to cultivate olive trees and other sturdy crops in the dry Mediterranean climate. Here and there sprigs of grass inch through cracks in the dilapidated concrete and stone as a couple hundred of us settle in to brave two hours of scorching heat for the afternoon match.

The team that calls Cisterna home takes the field in uniforms adorned with the Palestinian flag (and its colors of red, black, green and white) and a prominent gold map of historic Palestine emblazoned across the front of their jerseys. The players, for their part, look like your average Palestinians, as do the fans, some of whom are already taunting the opposing team’s players with witty asides and double entendres before the opening whistle. Cigarette smoke, a given at any Palestinian gathering, lingers over certain sections as vendors walk back and forth hawking Palestine-themed paraphernalia. Meanwhile, a group of five young kids plays soccer along the aisles, using an empty plastic bottle as their ball. At half-time Arabic music blares through a tinny PA system. Taking it all in, one could perhaps take comfort in the fact that, despite the hardships of living under military occupation, it’s apparently still possible for Palestinians to find a modicum of normality, if only for 90 minutes of soccer.

But Cisterna municipal stadium is not in Nablus, Gaza, Jericho or Jerusalem, but in Santiago de Chile, roughly 8,000 miles away from Palestine/Israel. And the home team, Club Deportivo Palestino, is in the Chilean premiere league. The opposing team on this day, Huachipato, hails from the Southern Coastal city of Talcahuano. [Continue reading…]

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The former death squad fighters who are now training as yoga teachers

Lila MacLellan writes: In New York or L.A., it’s pretty common to learn that a yoga teacher used to be a dancer, an actor, or even a former Wall Street banker. In Bogota and Medellin, the same is true. Except that here, the teacher may also be an ex-member of a Colombian death squad.

Since 2010, a local organization called Dunna: Alternativas Creativas Para la Paz (Dunna: Creative Alternatives for Peace) has been gradually introducing the basic poses to two groups for whom yoga has been a foreign concept: the poor, mostly rural victims of Colombia’s brutal, half-century conflict, and the guerilla fighters who once terrorized them.

Hundreds of ­ex-militants have already taken the offered yoga courses. A dozen now plan to teach yoga to others.

To stay calm, yoga-teacher-in-training Edifrando Valderrama Holguin turns off the television whenever he sees news broadcasts about young people being recruited into terror groups like ISIL. Valderrama was 12 when he was recruited into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was given a gun, basic training and a heavy dose of leftist ideology. “In the mountains, if I saw someone who was not part of our group, I had to kill him,” he says. “If I had questioned the ideology of the FARC, they would have called me an infiltrator and killed me.”

Now 28, Valderrama lives in the city of Medellin. He works afternoon shifts for a supplier to one of Colombia’s major meat companies, and practices yoga at home in the mornings. Until the program stopped last year, he attended Dunna’s yoga classes, rolling out his mat with former members of both the FARC and Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) — a paramilitary army he once fought against. Although initially surprised that he could feel so much peace lying in corpse pose, Valderrama now hopes to become a yoga teacher, so that he can introduce the healing asanas to ex-militants in Colombia, or even overseas.

Samuel Urueña Lievano, 46, was raped and then recruited into the rival AUC by a relative when he was 15. “They used my anger and hatred to get me to join. I have so much remorse for the things I did during that period,” he tells me as he begins to cry.

Urueña, now a law student in Bogota, takes medications to manage his anxiety and still has nightmares. He calls yoga his closest friend. Practicing the poses every day for two hours has made it possible for him to handle occasional feelings of panic, impatience and frustration, he says. “It has helped me identify who I am. It has given me myself back.” [Continue reading…]

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The rise in killings of Peru’s environmental and land defenders

Anti-logging campaigner, Edwin Chota, was murdered in September.

A new report by Global Witness sheds light on what’s driving the high number of killings of environmental defenders in Peru, less than a month before the country hosts the UN climate talks in Lima. Peru’s Deadly Environment calls into question the commitments of Peru to protect its carbon-rich forests and the people who live in them, in light of unfettered illegal logging, disregard for indigenous land claims, and new laws that favour industrial exploitation over environmental protection.

The report comes on the heels of the killings of four indigenous leaders in Ucayali in September, including prominent anti-logging activist Edwin Chota and three of his fellow Ashéninka leaders from the Peruvian Amazon.

“The murders of Edwin Chota and his colleagues are tragic reminders of a paradox at work in the climate negotiations,” said Patrick Alley, Co-Founder of Global Witness. “While Peru’s government chairs negotiations on how to solve our climate crisis, it is failing to protect the people on the frontline of environmental protection. Environmental defenders embody the resolve we need to halt global warming. The message is clear, if you want to save the environment, then stop people killing environmental defenders.”

Peru is the fourth most dangerous country to be an environmental defender, behind Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines. At least 57 environmental and land defenders were killed in Peru between 2002 and the present day, more than 60% of them in the last four years, according to new Global Witness data. Most of these deaths involved disputes over land rights, mining and logging. 72% of Peru’s indigenous communities still have no way of demonstrating their land tenure rights, and over 20 million hectares of land claims have not yet been processed. [Continue reading…]

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