Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is the War on Drugs in the Caribbean Going Up in Smoke?


July 26, 2011
Originally published on NACLA.org

Despite the war on drugs being lost long ago, the debate on a progressive drug policy in the Caribbean is showing positive signs of revival due to increased campaigning on behalf of community organizations, farmers, and academics. Earlier this month, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders met in St. Lucia to discuss regional issues in the usual fashion but were joined outside by a small but vocal demonstration campaigning for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Andre DeCaires, Chair of the Cannabis Movement of St. Lucia, and leader of the St. Lucia Green Party, stated that the demonstration’s purpose was not confrontation but to spark dialogue within St. Lucia and throughout the region. DeCaires commented on how Central and South America are already making important progress in thinking of alternatives to the status quo policies and that “We just want a conversation; we don’t want anybody to change anything now. We’re not expecting any change, but we want dialogue on the issue.”

The Cannabis Movement is certainly doing its best to make sure that happens. Despite being only a little more than a year old, the organization has already hosted information booths at public events and educational exhibits in the Castries Town Hall, where they discussed the benefits of the Cannabis "herb" as a medicinal as well as an industrial crop. The organization’s public relations officer Gordon Rae added that “On the advice of the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force, the Movement has added a prevention component so that the public is made aware that our intention is not the promotion of the use of marijuana but the decriminalization of the plant in all its beneficial forms”.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, St. Lucia reported that more than 80 percent of all arrests made on the island were drug related. Thirty miles south of Martinique (a French Department and part of the EU), St. Lucia has become an increasingly lucrative transhipment point for narcotics. A quick glance at the police's news archives will reveal that a vast amount of illegal activity on the island is related to the cultivation and trafficking of marijuana.

With the decimation of the island’s banana industry due to the collapse of preferential trade agreements with Europe, land which was once used to cultivate bananas is now being used to grow marijuana, as it has now become one of the only realistic ways for rural people to make a living.

The situation is no different in St. Vincent, where the collapse of the banana industry has led to marijuana becoming the largest source of agricultural income on the island. According to the 2012 Narcotics report, St. Vincent has now surpassed Jamaica as the largest marijuana producer in the Caribbean, where “according to officials, marijuana producers have recently started labelling their product for export.” Despite the threat of a criminal conviction, cultivators have established the St. Vincent Marijuana Growers Association in order to lobby their interests and regulate the industry.

Representatives of both the Cannabis Movement and the St. Vincent Marijuana Growers Association argue the income from taxes on legal marijuana could provide a much needed boost to the cash strapped islands. These happenings in St. Lucia and St. Vincent are not the only ones occurring, but they highlight the need for a new round of serious talks on the decriminalization of marijuana in the regionyet no Caribbean leader seems willing to be the first to openly advocate decriminalization.

Despite this, it does not mean that the debate for decriminalization is without important allies. In 2001, a National Commission on Ganja was held in Jamaica, commissioned by the late Professor Barry Chevannes. The report stated that “The overwhelming majority of persons appearing before the Commission feel that ganja should be decriminalised, but are united in restricting its use to private space and to adults.” The report recommended that Parliament decriminalize the use of marijuana in small quantities by adults and also as a religious sacrament. Chevannes stated at the time of the report that ''The current law is unenforceable because ganja cannot be suppressed because it is too entrenched.''

The current position on decriminalization also has tremendously negative consequences on the life chances of the Caribbean’s young people. According to statements made earlier this month by Jamaican Senator Tom Tavares-Finson, "On a weekly basis, … at the Resident Magistrate's (RM) Court at the Half-Way Tree Courthouse, approximately 300 young Jamaican males receive criminal records for minute quantities of ganja. It means that we are creating a pool of young persons who cannot be employed, who cannot join the military, who cannot join the police force and, indeed, cannot, in some instances, seek further education. They can't travel because of this conviction."

The issue of decriminalization is not just a Caribbean one, but a hemispheric one. In 2011, Former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo; former President of Brazil, Fernando Cardoso; former President of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, and other Latin American leaders spoke out regarding the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy in a report titled Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift and called for the immediate decriminalisation of marijuana. The commission was especially critical of the United States, which its members say must lead by changing its anti-drug policies from being guided by anti-crime approaches to ones rooted in health care and human rights.

At the most recent Summit of the Americas, President Obama said that “I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places” but shaped the outcome of that conversation in advance by flatly concluding that “legalization is not the answer.” It is highly unlikely that a small and vulnerable Caribbean island will be the first to step forward and decriminalize cannabis considering all of the political and economic consequences for doing so, but they may be next in line to follow the trend once Brazil, Mexico, or Columbia makes the first move.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Unsustainable Solutions to Haiti’s Housing Crisis

July 20, 2012

Originally posted on NACLA.org

On January 11, 2012the eve of the second anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquakeBeverly J. Oda, Canada’s former Minister of International Cooperation announced that the Government of Canada would be committing $19.9 million to the resettlement of 5,000 families (approximately 20,000 individuals), who were left homeless and were living in the internally displaced camp in Champs de Mars. The Canadian government would lead the resettlement initiative, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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"Photo Credit - Author"

"Canada is proud to be a part of the international efforts to help Haiti as it recovers from the earthquake over the past two years. We are fulfilling our commitment to the Haitian people so they can move forward to building their communities and their country," said Minister Oda. "The Champ de Mars project is a comprehensive Canadian initiative that focuses on the future of Haitian families and businesses as well as restoring a national landmark and place of pride for all Haitians as a public park for all to enjoy."

The website for the Canadian International Development Agency outlined that the Housing Action Project in Champs de Mars would respond “to a critical need expressed by the Government of Haiti: the resettlement of persons displaced by the 2010 earthquake through the offering of sustainable housing solutions.”

The definition of a sustainable housing solution seems to be what is causing the most controversy, as the clearing of camps such as Champs de Mars has coincided with an intensification of the housing crisis in Haiti. In the spirit of “anything is better than nothing,” the solution proposed by the Canadian government and the IOM was the one-time distribution of $500 in order to rent a place to live for a year.

In an interview with the Washington Post in February of this year, Emmett Fitzgerald of the IOM talked about their idea of a sustainable housing plan, stating that “We’re not talking about a house. We’re talking about renting a room, space on the floor, with a roof, access to water, a communal kitchen, maybe a toilet.”

With such a course of action proposed as a solution, it must be asked whether or not the program run by the Canadian government and the IOM will just postpone the housing crisis for the 20,000 individuals for another year. What will happen when then when the money runs out in the summer of 2013? It is hardly the stuff of a “sustainable housing solution.”

The lack of sustainability of the program didn’t seem to faze Fitzgerald however, who stated that “Giving cash to people to move, when integrated within a reconstruction and recovery plan, can be a very effective method,”

Sounds good, but as it stands there is no integrated reconstruction and recovery plan, especially when it comes to addressing the housing crisis in Haiti.

“Two years after the earthquake there is still no policy in terms of housing. The vast majority of construction has been temporary shelters with a life span between two, maximum five years. There’s no plan, no strategy to make temporary shelters more permanent structures and provide people with access to basic services like water,” said Gerrardo Ducos, of Amnesty International.

This is precisely the reason why the Under Tents campaign came to be, as “Haiti’s homeless are demanding that the government immediately halt all forced evictions until public or affordable housing is made available. They request that the Government of Haiti, with the support of its allies and donor governments in the United States, Canada, and Europe move quickly to: (1) designate land for housing, (2) create one centralized government housing institution to coordinate and implement a social housing plan, and (3) solicit and allocate funding to realize this plan.”

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"Photo Credit - Caribbean Journal"

6 months after Oda’s announcement, as the photos reveal, Champs de Mars is now clear of the battered tents and tarps, where thousands lived in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. While the contrast between the before and after photos looks impressive, the reality is that Haiti’s housing problem has not been solved, it has merely been swept outside of the immediate city core.

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"Photo Credit - Caribbean Journal"

Squatter settlements created by those who have been evicted under such resettlement plans have sprung up on the hillsides of Port au Prince, as well as on its outskirts. According to Mark Schuller, an anthropologist working in Haiti, many of the informal camps such as “Kanaran, a long stretch of desert land in the outskirts of town, is still growingno one knows how many people live there. I've heard estimates of 130,000 to 180,000 people, but IOM has never done a census... HANCHO, Karade, and Kolonbi are already well on their way to becoming shantytowns, the Cité Soleils of the next generation.”

One can only hope that the presently unsustainable nature of the project will not result in a backlash preventing the funding of real housing solutions for Haiti in the immediate future. At the start of the “sustainable” housing campaign, Oda remarked that “If all we do is clear the Champ de Mars, we will have failed”yet this is exactly what has happened. The clearing of Champs de Mars camp may be held up as a sign of progress by many, when it should really stand out as a dangerous example that simply relocating the problem of housing in Haiti will not solve, but only intensify, the dilemma.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Everything That Glitters Isn’t Green in Guyana

July 13, 2012

NACLA.org

On July 5, Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment announced that it would suspend new river mining claims due to growing concern about widespread environmental damage posing a serious threat to the country’s indigenous groups and other river-based communities. The surprising, but much needed, announcement comes at a time when gold prices are soaring on the global markets, with many Canadian and Brazilian multinationals scrambling into the country to setup mega-projects and capitalize on Guyana’s vast mineral wealth.

Among the concerns the Ministry noted was a reduction in the availability of potable drinking water, as rivers have become laced with mercury and sediment due to widespread dredging, which has also resulted in the deaths of many fish and aquatic plants. The activity has also eroded riverbanks as fallen trees, gravel deposits, and sediment have altered the flow of waterways and have made many rivers impassable during the dry season.

The skyrocketing price of gold has resulted in the industry becoming Guyana’s most lucrativeovertaking sugar, rice, and bauxiteand now accounts for nearly half of the nation’s GDP. In the midst of this literal gold rush, where prospectors and investors from around the world have been pouring into the country, the government has largely been unable to keep the industry under controland the suspension of new mining permits is a clear signal that the government has a great deal of catching up to do.

In May, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Robert Persaud announced that the government would open up new offices in the nation’s interior, allowing regulators to be closer to the mining sites that would make it easier to enforce environmental policies whichup to this pointare often cited, but rarely enforced, in practice. He has also promised that the fees for environmental degradation will be increased accordingly.

To halt the development of such a lucrative, albeit destructive, industry shows some important restraint, as Guyana has witnessed the destruction caused by corporate irresponsibility enabled by a lack of oversight and regulation before. In 1995, a tailings dam at the Omai gold mine burst, resulting in a disastrous spill whereby 120 million gallons of poisonous sediment laced with cyanide and mercury entered the Essequibo River, leading then President Cheddi Jagan to call the area an “environmental disaster zone.”

The spill led to a $2 billion lawsuit against Omai Gold Mines, a subsidiary of Quebec’s Cambior. But the court dismissed the class action suit was filed on behalf of the 23,000 residents affected by the spill, as no criminal liability was found. To add insult to injury, the plaintiffs were also required to pay Cambior’s legal defense fees.

In addition to increased regulation, Persaud also highlighted the government’s plan to build a refinery in order to reduce gold smuggling and reduce the risk that miners face in transporting gold long distancesas robberies, assaults, and murders are becoming more common in the interior. Persaud estimated that as much as 400,000 ounces (more than Guyana’s official output) of gold is being smuggled out of the country by mining companies and individuals to neighboring Suriname, where royalties and taxes are significantly lower. His own Ministry, however, is often entangled in many of the talks surrounding corruption in the mining sector. Talks are currently underway with the Surinamese authorities to encourage them to match Guyana’s 7% royalty tax, which currently sits at less than 2%.

Combating smuggling and enforcing harsher environmental regulations will prove to be a difficult task for the nation of 755,000, because situated between Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname, nearly 80% of Guyana is covered by tropical rainforest. It also leads one to ask whether or not this is simply a temporary solution, which will lack any real teeth moving forward, or whether it is the start of a serious effort to reform Guyana’s mining sector.

Given the fact that Guyana has one of the hemisphere’s largest reserves of gold and other natural resources, yet remains one of the poorest Caribbean nations, is a clear sign that significant reform is needed to ensure that Guyana’s natural wealth is used to benefit the people in a sustainable way, not just foreign companies and a select few within the country. That said, any real reform in Guyana will face serious international pressures, no matter how badly domestic actors might call for it.

Looking around the hemisphere, it would appear that any effort to put more regulations on mining companies is not always the safest political movebut it does not mean that it is not necessary either. Currently in Bolivia, indigenous communities in Mallku Khota have nationalized a concession granted to the Canadian mining company South American Silver, and are now planning to divert the profits into local community development. Due to the progressive policies enacted by the Morales government, Bolivia has routinely been the victim of destabilization attempts orchestrated by the United States and fearful multinationals. In Honduras, Manuel Zelaya placed a moratorium on granting new concessions to gold miners unless they had engaged in environmental assessments. It is widely looked at one of the key acts that led to the coup d’etat which overthrew him in 2009.

As it stands, the high prices of gold works both as an opportunity for the government to get its hands on much needed revenue, but unfortunately also entices people and corporations to work outside of the system in order to get a higher profit in a socially and environmentally unsustainable manner. Only time will tell if the Guyanese government will enact much needed reforms to protect both the environment and all segments of society that depend directly and indirectly on miningor if they allow the industry to deteriorate the country in favor of foreign mining interests.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Under Tents: Taking Action for Haiti’s Homeless

July 6, 2012
NACLA.org

On July 2, Haitian grassroots organizations and their international allies launched a housing rights campaign called ‘Under Tents’ in response to the failure the Haitian government to “address Haiti’s epidemic of homelessness.” According to Haiti Liberté, the campaign will press for congressional and parliamentary action in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to support the construction of housing for displaced Haitians. Central to the campaign is an online petition addressed to President Martelly, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other senior Haitian and American officials to take action to combat Haiti’s severe housing crisis.

Reading recent headlines however, it would be easy—albeit mistaken—to think that progress was being made on the housing front. On July 26, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) reported that the number of displaced Haitians living in the camps had dropped below 400,000 from a high of nearly 1.5 million in the immediate aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. What the IOM didn’t tell the public was where the displaced people had gone, and why so many had left the camps.

The sad truth is that while the number of people living in the officially designated camps has decreased due to increasingly violent forced evictions where residents have been attacked, and camps have been demolished and burnt down, it does not mean that they have found decent shelter elsewhere. Instead, they are setting up tents, tarps and precarious makeshift houses on the hillsides of Port au Prince—often in worse living conditions than those found in the camps. The harsh reality of Haiti’s homeless has been captured in photos by Bri Kouri Nouvel Gaye, a Haitian independent media group, which has also captured several forced evictions on film as they occurred.

In addition to the photo evidence, last week several significant reports were released which challenged the IOM’s numbers, and provided much needed context to the statement on the decline of homelessness in Port au Prince.

The Centre for Economic and Policy Research dug deeper and revealed that “The IOM touts a 75 percent reduction in the camp population since July 2010, amounting to a decrease of over 1.1 million people. Yet as of April 2012, only 12,000 rental subsidies were given out, 13,000 houses were repaired and just fewer than 5,000 new homes were constructed. In total, these three solutions account for only about 12 percent of the reduction in IDP population. Additionally, about 108,000 transitional shelters have been built, which would account for an additional 42 percent. However this likely overstates the effects of the transitional shelter, as it is estimated that only about 40 percent of transitional shelters actually went to IDPs.”

It is in this discussion where the Under Tents group put forward a set of three essential demands. The group’s press release states that “Haiti’s homeless are demanding that the government immediately halt all forced evictions until public or affordable housing is made available. They request that the Government of Haiti, with the support of its allies and donor governments in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, move quickly to: (1) designate land for housing (2) create one centralized government housing institution to coordinate and implement a social housing plan and (3) solicit and allocate funding to realize this plan.”

The release also highlights the precarious and often dangerous living conditions faced by those in the camps, stating that “The hundreds of thousands still living under plastic tarps and tattered tents face high rates of gender-based and other violence, lack access to clean water and toilets, and cholera treatment. One in five is also at risk of imminent forced eviction.”

Considering the amount of lofty development proposals and promises made compared to the actual building of homes, more than two and a half years later, one would be hard pressed to call the reconstruction effort anything other than a disappointment, and with the high rates of forced evictions, a dangerous one at that.

While it is great to be ambitious—one has to follow through, as high profile announcements such as Prince Charles’ intention of rebuilding the entire downtown area of Port au Prince, to the Clinton Foundation’s construction of a 20,000 seat soccer stadium in Cite Soleil—are more distractions than necessities when so many are without homes. As the independent media group Ayiti Kale Je (Haiti Grassroots Watch) remarked “If Haiti’s capital could be re-built from documents alone, reconstruction would be well underway already.”

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Haiti was often cited at as an opportunity to build a stronger and more equitable nation. What we are witnessing is a reconstruction plan that has abandoned the basics—homes, water, sanitation, health and education—yet at the same time 5 star hotels and massive industrial parks for sweatshops are being constructed. As a result some of the most basic priorities are unfortunately being portrayed as unreasonable and impossible demands. Yet Jackson Doliscar of the Haitian grassroots organization Forces for Reflection and Action on Housing Matters (FRAKKA in Kreyol) summed up the fundamental mission of the campaign, reminding others that “We are asking simply for quality homes where people can live.”

The campaign will run until World Habitat Day, October 1.