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Coronavirus prefers ‘the poor crooked scythe and spade’ — LAB Newsletter: 19 July 2020


Coronavirus prefers ‘the poor crooked scythe and spade’

LAB Newsletter: 19 July 2020

A sign reading “Cariacu Community in Quarantine stay at home” at the entrance of their community. Image: Flickr Gadip Cayambe.

Covid-19 targets the poor

Infections in the US today reached 3.7 million, with over 140,000 deaths. Second in this terrible league table stands Brazil, with at least 2.07 million infections and 77,772 deaths. Mexico and Peru are not far behind. The figures are from the Johns Hopkins university website, widely regarded as the most reliable source. LAB’s Emily Gregg has completed two more region-wide surveys of the impacts in Latin America (22 June and 8 July).

The news that both Bolivian interim president Jeanine Añez and Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro have tested positive serves to emphasize that this virus sometimes touches even ‘sceptre and crown’ – as the 17th Century English poet James Shirley described rulers, in ‘Death the Leveller’.

Yet Covid-19 still disproportionately affects indigenous communities, the poor and those in marginal occupations who live in crowded households, cannot afford to stay at home, often lack tap-water for hand-washing, and have limited access to health care.

Their story is told in Ecuador, as Linda Etchart reports, by indigenous women on the front-line; and by the people of the village of Sarayaku, home to Kichwa people, devastated first by disastrous floods in March and now by the arrival of Covid-19, with 25 positive cases detected by early June; lastly, in a fine report by Vincent Ricci, the mayor and residents of the small city of Cayambe, set in the midst of indigenous communities, fear that the premature opening of transport with Quito and other centres will bring the virus back.

In Argentina, Kinga Harasim writes, grim choices confront people living in the villas miseria of Buenos Aires: go out to work and risk infection or stay at home and risk starvation.Ramona Medina, one of the community leaders of Villa 31, a Buenos Aires villa miseria, died from coronavirus after constantly denouncing the lack of water and the conditions for maintaining social distancing measures in her neighbourhood. In the country’s northern provinces Benjamin Cornwell describes the effect of border closures on the trade in coca leaves, widely consumed as part of the daily culture of local people of all classes.

In Brazil, meanwhile, local partners in the Indigenous Brazil Violated project (in which LAB, too, is a partner, see below) took food and sanitising products to semi-isolated communities of the Guarani-Kaiowá. LAB’s Sue Branford, with her colleague Thais Borges, has been reporting for Mongabay and LAB on the area of the Trombetas river basin in Pará. There the vast MRN bauxite mine at Oriximiná threatens local Quilombo communities’ water supplies and crops and risks spreading Covid-19 to vulnerable communities, as mine employees and engineers travel in and out of the area. The MRN mining company, they show, is leaving a legacy of pollution and poverty. One piece of good news is that a federal judge on 3 July ordered the government to remove 20,000 illegal miners from the the Yanomami national park, in order to defend the indigenous people from infection.

All these stories feature the determination and bravery of local communities, determined to protect themselves where national governments have so often failed them.

James Shirley’s poem, quoted above, ends with the words:

Only the actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.


In another of her powerful blog posts on 21 June, Jan Rocha reports that ‘It would be an understatement to say this has been a bad week for Bolsonaro. In fact it has been disastrous. The tide has turned against the President, in the courts, in the streets, in the press.’ Yet he remains president.

Dial forward one month, and Amnesty International releases From Forest to Farmland, a report showing that cattle illegally grazed in protected areas of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest have entered the supply chain of the world’s largest meat-packer, JBS.


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São Paulo-based Agência Pública, a LAB partner, interviewed João Cezar de Castro Rocha, a professor in comparative literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), who has been studying what he calls thecultural war’ waged by Bolsonaro and his followers. Brazil is ‘on a precipice’, he warns. The University of Buenos Aires organised a dialogue between former president Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula) and the Argentine president Alberto Fernández, where they reflect on Latin America After the Pandemic.

On a more optimistic note, Raúl Zibechi and Juan Wahren argue that ‘the people of Latin America are slowly but steadily building alternative worlds.

Other news

Colombia’s peace accords have received another setback, writes Camilo Ucros, as Darío Acevedo is appointed president of Colombia’s National Centre for Historic Memory (CNMH). He has publicly denied that there had been an armed conflict in Colombia. Also, as vice dean of the Faculty of Human and Economic Sciences, he vetoed courses on fascism and Marxism. Now the Centre is to give the military and the landowners’ organisation FEDEGAN a greater say.

Meanwhile, 15 June was world Elder Abuse Day and Argentine tango teacher and LGBT activist Edgardo Fernández Sesma, who was interviewed in LAB’s Voices of Latin America, made a video to highlight the problems.

Fondo, an excellent documentary film by Argentine director Alejandro Bercovich accuses the IMF of continuing to operate with its ‘one recipe fits all’ version of structural adjustment, most recently when former Argentinian president Macri was obliged to go cap in hand to them once more in 2018. Available to watch on-line for free, it is reviewed for LAB by Franziska Reiffen and Giorgio Berti.

LAB council member Ainhoa Montoya has written a fascinating book The Violence of Democracy – Political Life in Postwar El Salvador, reviewed here by Mogs Russell.

Suriname is a country LAB has seldom if ever reported on. Robert Eveson has remedied that with a report on the country’s recent elections, which saw 75-year-old Desi Bouterse, arguably the last of Latin America’s dictatorship leaders (he came to power in a ‘sergeant’s coup’ in 1980), lose to a centre-left coalition led by Chan Santokhi, who was formally declared president on 13 July.

LAB News

Some of LAB’s history, and that of the solidarity and human rights campaigns for Latin America from the 1970s onwards, is captured in a history of CIIR, the Catholic Institute for International Relations (later renamed Progressio), written by Jon Barnes, former secretary of the Chile Committee for Human Rights.

For the first time in more than ten years, LAB is able to contemplate employing staff. We lost our office and last paid staff in around 2007 and since then we have been entirely reliant on volunteers and unpaid correspondents. We have advertised for a part-time Admin and Editorial Assistant, for an initial period of 9 months. The closing date for applications is 31 July. Details here.

Indigenous Brazil Violated is a new project led by Antonio Ioris at Cardiff University, in partnership with colleagues at the Federal University of Mato Grosso and the Amazon Social-Environmental Studies Center at the Amazonas State University. The project is funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The range of the project is partly explained in a book edited by Antonio Ioris and colleagues: Frontiers of Development in the Amazon: Riches, Risks, and Resistances, Lexington Books, 2020.

LAB is a partner in the project, contributing a project website (a section of LAB’s own website), which you can see here, and conducting media analysis. LAB’s Sue Branford was due to take part in field studies, but these have had to be postponed because of Covid-19.

Research Engagement and Impact: we hope that the IndigBrazil project will establish a template for collaboration with academic researchers, allowing LAB to use its considerable expertise to extend and improve the dissemination of academic research beyond the realm of academic reporting and discussion which is often couched in highly technical language inaccessible to the lay reader.

LAB partner Christian Aid joined others across the aid agency, NGO and academic worlds who deplored the UK government’s decision to merge the overseas aid department DfID with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, thus subjecting it entirely to UK foreign policy goals. This, says Christian Aid’s Patrick Watt, ‘is an act of political vandalism’.

Best wishes and stay safe,

The LAB Team