Construction on a River Project brings Debate

Brazil’s President Lula is attempting to make the history books by beginning a project to shift the course of the San Francisco River, the fourth largest in Brazil, to the poor and semi arid region of northeast Brazil.  The project has been met with feverish debate and has become controversial over the past few years.

The project’s aim is to bring water to the north through the construction of two canals.  As a result of the difference in altitude of the two regions, the water must be pumped to the north which adds to the project the construction of nine pumping stations, 27 aqueducts, eight tunnels, 35 water reservoirs and two hydroelectric plants.  The water is said to be used for irrigation purposes, urban use and rural population but it will end up benefiting the agro-industrial sector the most putting control in the hands of an elite class.

Debate around the project is present from all kinds of interest groups organizing protests.  In 2005 work on the project was stopped briefly when Roman Catholic Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio went on an 11 day hunger strike to stop the construction.  His strike ended when he was given assurances that the government and the civil society would enter into a dialogue.  Yet, the dialogue was limited to one seminar that took place in May of 2006.  In early 2007 thousands of landless workers attempted to stop the project by invading government property in protest.  The work on the River forced rural workers to leave their land and they face working unproductive lands as agribusiness companies will get the best land.  Many social movements, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Pastoral Fishers Commission, have formed a unified alliance to stop the construction by radical means if necessary.  Those who depend on the river for the livelihood, such as indigenous people, fisherman and small farmers, are constantly ignored.

Opponents of the project argue that the semiarid region’s problem is not the lack of water but the lack of distribution of water resources that already exist.  The area needs an efficient management, not a new system some argue.  In addition, experts have shown that the project ignores the climate change scenarios.  One possible consequence would be a decrease in the runoff of the river by 20% from global warming. International donors have even shown opposition as the World Bank released a study that argued against funding the project since the effects on poverty reduction cannot be proven.  Many argue that there are much cheaper and effective ways to meet the project’s aims. Even the Supreme Court of Brazil has questioned the legality of the project as they are currently analyzing the authorization from the National Congress for water resources to be used in the lands.

Since the beginning of 2007, construction has moved forward despite concerns or opposition.  The $2 billion project was approved by Brazil’s environmental protection agency in March and in June military battalions prepared for construction work.  The project is supposed to be funded through transferring costs to water users which is expected to raise the costs five fold.  Hence, the Brazil’s citizens would be paying the cost of agricultural goods that are exported.  Construction is set to begin at the end of June while more protests are being organized from social movements, indigenous and environmental groups to bring public attention to the disaster.

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Emergency Contraception Debated in South America

In Ushuaia, Argentina a judge recently restricted access of poor women and adolescents to emergency contraceptive pills. The ruling suspended the free distribution of these pills through the public health sector. Opponents of the ruling argue it was made on scientific ignorance and will greatly affect the well being of poor women in Argentina.

The debate centers on the question of whether or not the emergency contraceptive pills induce abortion. Those supporting the ruling argue that the pill does induce abortion and therefore violates the constitution’s right to protect life from the moment of conception. However, opponents of the ruling, and the scientific community, argue that the pill does not induce abortion but rather it delays and inhibits ovulation and does not violate the constitution. Many other South American countries with strict abortion laws, such as Brazil, still allow the distribution of the pill to the public. Opponents continue that the restriction of emergency conception discriminates against poor women and adolescents because it discourages them from seeking medical care thus increasing the risk of pregnancy.

The poor and young women, as well as rape survivors, are vulnerable as many might seek illegal abortions as an alternative to the pill. Abortions are illegal in every case in Argentina and they are the leading cause of maternal mortality in Argentina. About 500,000 abortions occur annually throughout the country. Legislatures have consistently stated their opposition to modern birth control methods such as the emergency contraceptive pill and this position was reinforced with the recent ruling in Ushuaia.

In addition to Argentina, Chile has seen similar debates with regards to the distribution of emergency contraceptive pills.  Chile’s medical protocols, under the Ministry of Health guidelines, currently allow health services to provide emergency contraceptive pills. However, some members of the parliament are attempting to change this by asking the Constitutional Court to issue an injunction against these guidelines. They argue that the pills induce abortion and that access to the pill interferes with the rights of parents to educate their own children. Others argue that the injunction should be deny because it would result in the pills not being available to anyone, not matter what her age or circumstances are.

Access to these pills is vital for the poor, rape survivors and adolescents because 90% of women in Chile rely on public health for pregnancy prevention. Without such prevention available to them through public health programs, many women have unwanted pregnancies or seek other illegal and unsafe prevention measures. In Chile, 15% of births are to girls between 10 and 19 years of age. Other countries, such as France and Great Britain, have lowered their pregnancy rates because adolescents have access to healthcare services and information.

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Paramilitary groups a dangerous, influential force in Colombia

In early May, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a letter to Colombian President álvaro Uribe, explaining that “Colombian paramilitaries pose a grave threat to Colombia’s democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.”

This week, there is proof that some of Colombia’s most influential leaders in politics, business, and the military assisted with the creation of an anti-guerrilla movement “that operated with impunity, killed civilians and shipped cocaine to U.S. cities,” according to the Washington Post.

Although human rights groups have long alleged that Colombian leaders have supported paramilitaries, it was recently confirmed by several top paramilitary commanders in recent days, one even remarking to the Washington Post that “paramilitarism was state policy.” These commanders named army generals, entrepreneurs, foreign companies and politicians who worked hand in hand with fighters and bankrolled their operations.  Salvatore Mancuso, now incarcerated, testified before special tribunal that Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole paid paramilitary forces over the last several years.  Chiquita has agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

Ivan Duque, a strategist for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization, stated that the AUC had alliances with influential people in every region they were located. He estimates that the AUC alone had 17,000 armed fighters and over 10,000 other associates.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), another paramilitary group, kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betacourt in 2002.  An escaped prisoner told the Associated Press she is chained by the neck in a cell earlier this month. FARC is also responsible for kidnapping a Swedish citizen, Erin Larson, who was working on a hydroelectric damn in Cordoba province.  This also occurred this month.

Colombia’s paramilitary movement began in the mid 1900’s to counter a growing Marxist guerilla force. It became an irregular army that funded its operations with cocaine trafficking. These groups have since been responsible for massacres and assassinations. The attorney general’s office estimates that 10,000 people were killed by paramilitary fighters from the mid-1990s until present. The AUC and FARC are on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.

More on the activities of these organizations as stories develop. For more information, please see:

Colombia: Companies Paid Paramilitaries” United Press International: 18 May 2007

“Colombia: Paramilitaries’ Power Threatens Democracy” Human Rights Watch: 2 May 2007

“Paramilitary Ties to Elite in Colombia are Detailed” Washington Post: 22 May 2007

“Betancourt held ‘chained by neck’” CNN:
19 May 2007

“Colombia Rebels Kidnap Swedish Citizen” CNN: 18 May 2007

Birth Control Subsidized in Brazil

Just weeks after Pope Benedict spoke against government sponsored birth control measures; Brazil announced on Monday that they will subsidize birth control to reduce cost for the poor.  The announcement laid out a plan to discount birth control up to 90% at 3,500 government authorized pharmacies across the country as a means to decrease unwanted pregnancies.

Brazil has programs in place to hand out free condoms and birth control at pharmacies.  However, the poor of the country do not have access to these pharmacies.  By subsidizing the pills, the government is offering them at significantly reduced prices, about 20 cents in US dollars.  Current retail price for the birth control ranges from $2.56 to $25.60.  The number of stores offering the pills is intended to reach 10,000 by the end of the year.  The government hopes to distribute 50 million supplies of pill each year, an increase from the current 20 million distributed.

The program could decrease the amount of illegal abortions performed in Brazil as a result of unwanted pregnancies.  About 4,000 women die each year from the illegal procedures making illegal abortions the fourth leading cause of maternal death in the country.  Other methods to reduce unwanted pregnancies include increasing the amount of free vasectomies performed.

Some women’s advocates worry that the government will not follow through with this new program as there is a lack of political will.  However, Brazilian president Lula da Silva favors a national debate on the issue of abortion laws and on birth control.  Congress is also expected to take up the issue in the family planning policy finding ways for women to be given the ability to decide.

The debate on birth control is also present in Argentina where recently a judge in Ushuaia prevented poor women and adolescents to have access to emergency contraceptive pills.  Opponents of the judge’s actions argue that preventing free access to the pills, while pharmacies sell the products, discriminates against poor women and adolescents.  This decision reinforced the economic constraints women face in making choices regarding their own health.

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Chavez closes “threatening” TV station

By Christopher Gehrke

Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, South America

Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Venezuela’s oldest television station, was taken off the air May 27th after 53 years of broadcasting. The decision not to renew RCTV’s lease was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said that RCTV “became a threat to the country” and that he had a “responsibility” to shut it down.  RCTV’s news programs regularly disparage President Chavez’s socialist-leaning transformation of Venezuelan government. Chavez defended his decision by claiming that the station supported a coup against him in 2002. The station will be replaced by the state-sponsored Venezuelan Social TV (TVES). The other two national stations, Venevision and Televen, have already removed all content critical of the government from their programming.


RCTV supporters say that Chavez is stomping on freedom of expression by silencing a channel that is often critical. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch agrees, and stated that Chavez is “misusing the state’s regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its criticism of the government.” Gonzalo Marroquín, the president of the Inter-American Press Association said in a statement that Chavez’s decision was intended to “standardize the right to information, and results in a very bleak outlook for the whole hemisphere.” The U.S. Senate and E.U. Parliament also criticized RCTV’s closure.

The government argues that the station violated broadcast laws and transmitted violent and morally degrading programs. The government’s “White Book on RCTV”, which details the allegations made against the station, accuses RCTV of “inciting rebellion,” showing a “lack of respect for authorities and institutions,” as well. Human Rights Watch points out that the White Book does not present any final judicial or administrative rulings that establish that RCTV had committed any of these offenses, nor was the criteria on which this decision was based available beforehand.


Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday, some celebrating the decision, some protesting it. Police claimed that shots were fired in their direction and that 11 officers were injured by protesters hurling rocks. A protest rally made their way to the headquarters of the broadcasting regulator to voice their disapproval. The crowd was dispersed by police wielding tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets.

For more information, see:

“Venezuela police repel protests over TV network’s closing” NY Times: (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela Shuts Down TV Network” NY Times: (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela: TV Shutdown Harms Freedom of Expression” Human Rights Watch: 28 May 2007.

“Rallies as Venezuelan TV closes” BBC News: 28 May 2007.

“TV row widens Venezuela’s rift” BBC News: 28 May 2007.

Pope makes first visit to Brazil, angers Indians

Pope Benedict made his first visit to Brazil convening a 19 day conference of Latin American Bishops. Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world and is also a country where there is a clear challenge to the church. In his speeches, Pope Benedict warned against moving away from Catholic values and suggested that those values are the answer to present social and economic issues.  He blamed the gap between the rich and the poor on Marxism and capitalism in the region as well as the growth of Protestantism. The Pope drew a lower turnout then expected, reflecting the decreasing influence of the Catholic Church as well as the weaker appeal of this Pope in comparison to Pope John Paul II.

In response to the Pope’s visit and statements, Indian leaders stated they were outraged and offended by the Pope’s “arrogant and disrespectful” comments regarding the imposition of the Church on the indigenous people. Pope Benedict said that the indigenous people welcomed the arrival of European Priests and were “silently longing” for Christianity. However, millions of Indians died from slaughter, disease or enslavement as a result of the European colonization supported by the Catholic Church. Today, Indians still struggle for survival as they have been deprived of their traditional ways of life.

Brazil is home to over 450,000 Indians who mostly inhabit small reserves with few opportunities to make a living.  Many Indian groups sent an open letter to the Pope asking for support in defending their ancestral lands against the government as they have suffered a “process of genocide” since the first colonization began. The letter stated that the assassination of Indian leaders was still occurring from people who invaded their lands. Jecinald Satere Mawe, of the Amazon Indian group Coiab, stated that it was arrogant and disrespectful of the Pope to “consider our cultural heritage secondary to theirs.” In addition to Indian groups being outraged, the Pope also angered Catholic priests who have joined the struggle of the Indians. Sandro Tuxa, who heads northeastern tribal movement, stated that the Pope had been poorly advised and that his statements were offensive and frightening. Cimi, Catholic Churches own Indian advocacy group in Brazil distanced itself from the Pope after his comments.

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Ecuador’s Removal of Lawmakers

Provincial Judge, Juan Ramirez, was fired after he blocked the Electoral Tribunal from unseating 57 legislators in Ecuador. The tribunal fired Ramirez, saying the removal was justified because Ramirez acted illegally when blocking the Tribunal’s actions. The 57 fired lawmakers were opposing a referendum on a constitutional change that was supported by President Rafael Correa. The change would send a referendum to the people seeking approval for a national assembly to look at constitutional reform and potentially rewrite the Constitution. The Supreme Electoral Court announced that the referendum would proceed. The legislature then replaced the president of the court. The court came back and fired 57 lawmakers out of the 100 member assembly.

Following the removal of the lawmakers, the Constitutional Court found that the firings were unconstitutional and ordered them to be reinstated.  On the following day all nine judges of the Constitutional Court were removed by Congress who stated that the judges terms had meant to expire in January 2007. However, the judges have a four year term under the constitution and were appointed in February of 2006. President Correa insisted that the lawmakers did not deserve their jobs back and condemned the Supreme Court ruling to reinstate the lawmakers as a violation of legal procedures.

Human Rights Watch said that these actions have undermined the country’s democratic institutions and that disagreement between factions cannot justify the removal of judges. Such actions are a gross interference with the autonomy of another branch of government continued Human Rights Watch. There is a trend of Ecuadorian officials resolving political differences by removing their opponents rather then through other, more democratic, means. The democratic institutions in Ecuador have been in crisis for years as presidents have been removed before completing their terms and Congress has fired and replaced Supreme Court judges.

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Colombian port city is home to corruption, death, and the impoverished

Buenaventura, a Colombian port city with a population of about 300,000, has emerged as one of the poorest and most dangerous urban centers in South America.

Buenaventura is an important port for both legitimate business and the cocaine trade. In 2005, one-third of all cocaine captured along the Pacific coast was captured in and around Buenaventura. Corruption plagues Buenaventura, even prompting President Alvaro Uribe to demand the arrest of the city’s top security official for taking bribes in 2006.

Cocaine dealers and traffickers combine forces with rebel groups and demobilized paramilitary veterans to fight the overwhelmed 2,000 soldiers and police officers that patrol the area. Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) knocked out the city’s power with a grenade attack a year ago last Friday. These groups control the slums, where young people are recruited to be foot soldiers, informers, or hit men. Killings in this city rose by 30 percent in 2006, giving Buenaventura Colombia’s highest homicide rate (144 per 100,000). This is seven times the rate in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, and twenty-four times the rate of New York City. Two-hundred and forty-four people have been killed so far this year.

Homes here are made of cinderblocks and discarded wood. Fresh water is obtained from rusty barrels that collect drops from metal roofs. The unemployment rate is 28 percent, forcing many to turn to the cocaine trade. The city has a large refugee population: over 42,000 people, mostly Afro-Colombians, have arrived since 1998. Some nongovernmental groups say that Afro-Colombians make up a quarter of the Colombian population. Over 80 percent of Buenaventura’s residents are black, and live on less than three dollars a day. Critics say that authorities have neglected Buenaventura’s problems because Afro-Colombians do not receive sufficient federal attention.

For more info, see:

“Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City” New York Times: 22 May 2007

“Colombia Port City Is Battleground” Washington Post: 28 December 2006

“Colombia City Power Grid Attacked” BBC News: 20 May 2006.

Homemade Bomb Kills Six in Juliaca, Peru

A bomb made of dynamite and nails concealed in a backpack exploded in a market in Juliaca, Peru on Friday, May 18th. The blast occurred around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. local time, officials say. The blast killed 6 and wounded 48 attending a 40 year anniversary celebration. Juliaca is just over 500 miles south of Lima, Peru’s capital, near the Bolivian border.

Officials have made contradictory statements: one claimed it was merely fireworks for the celebration, but local police have stated that they have not ruled out a terrorist attack.

The influence of Peru’s rebel group, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) has decreased in recent years. Sendero Luminoso was responsible for massacres, bombings, and assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s. Their leader, Abimael Guzman is serving a life sentence after being captured in 1992. It is worth noting, however, that this terrorist group made their first armed attack almost to the day over 27 years ago, when it burned ballot boxes before a presidential election on May 17th, 1980.

“Homemade Bomb Kills 6, Wounds 48 in Peru” New York Times: 19 May 2007.

“Homemade Bomb Kills 6 during celebration in Peru” 19 May 2007.

“Blast kills 6 in southern Peru” BBC News: 20 May 2007.