A great way to pay sugarcane workers even less, or nothing at all

I want to share a story somebody told me yesterday as we drove past the sugarcane fields. The men in the fields were covered in soot, and looked more like coal miners than field hands. That is because they burn all the green off the sugarcane before they harvest it, making it easier to work with. The leaved stalks of sugar cane are sharp and will cut you. Green sugar cane also attracts a lot of bees, scorpions and other pests. By burning it, workers don’t need to worry about any of that. The environmental effects of burning the sugarcane are pretty severe. By burning all the excess from the sugarcane, you deprive the land of any micronutrients. Sugar cane is already an extremely nutrient-depleting plant. By burning, you make it more so. During harvest season, the burning creates a perpetual haze throughout the land. In El Salvador, I lived about two miles from a large sugar cane plantation. During burning, my house would be covered with ash and burned leafs, inside and out.

Anyway, this story yesterday has nothing to do with the burning. But it should give you an idea of the extreme conditions these workers are faced with. Sugarcane is grown in hot climates and then they sit in a field and burn it. Workers are basically cutting sugar cane in a gigantic oven. The minimum wage in Guatemala for agricultural work is about $10 (74 quetzales/day). Although I doubt that enforcement is too strong, some landowners have found a way around that pesky regulation.

This is what an agronomist that works in the region told me yesterday: On Saturdays and Sundays, some farms hold a cane-cutting competition. The winner gets a motorcycle. Everyone else gets nothing. Each person can cut up to three tons, even four tons a day. At about 125 tons per hectare, with 1000 contestants, you can clear more than 30 hectares a day. And instead of paying $10,000 (minimum wage for the 1000 people), you only have to buy a $500 motorcycle to give away. And even that is usually more than they need to do because there is oftentimes an inscription fee to join the competition. And they aren’t breaking minimum wage laws because it is just a competition. So there you have it. You got to hand it to them. It takes a lot of, well something, to get some of the most exploited workers in the world to perform one of the worst jobs in the world while charging them a fee to do it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Does giving cash to females help economic growth? Recap of an academic paper

We know that when women have money, they spend more of it on their children than men do. At least the evidence would suggest that. A new paper from Northwestern University explores whether or not that means that putting money on women’s hands will spur economic growth (and not just child welfare).

Female empowerment as a development policy seems pretty straightforward. Improving access to health care, education, or job opportunities for women is not controversial (in the Development world). Reducing any of these discriminations is both desirable and necessary in itself. This paper doesn’t dispute that. The two authors (one male, one female) set out to examine whether economic policies that exclusively benefit females can be justified on economic growth grounds. So when the World Bank offers a $100 million credit line for women, and men are excluded from cash-transfer and microcredit programs, is that helping economic growth?

Well, it depends, according to the authors. And the reasons, I think, have more to do with the problems of how we measure economic growth than with the outcomes of giving cash to women. Basically, if you live in a really poor country, giving money to women (who in turn invest in their children) isn’t going to do a lot for measurable economic growth because most growth is not in human capital (i.e. growth is not a result of new skills, technology). Growth in underdeveloped countries takes place mostly in physical capital (i.e. what you produce). In this way, in a really poor country, if a woman decides to spend money on educating her child, it is money that is not given to the child later in life (as cows, as a house with a tin roof, or just cash), and the latter is much more valuable. In a more developed country, where human capital is the driver of economic growth, meaning technological advances due to new ideas etc, giving money to women IS a driver of economic growth.

The paper goes on to argue that evidence shows men use money for investment more than women (I guess investing in your kids doesn’t count). The main gist of the paper really comes down to their assumption that we all have the same preferences and desires, men and women, and therefore taking money from men and giving it to women doesn’t make sense in really poor countries. I’m not entirely sure I buy it. They also show why it doesn’t make sense in highly developed societies because by that time, men and women largely earn the same amount, so any transfers from men to women would be more harmful (so all those developed countries where women make the same as men, er um, just Denmark maybe). So according to the paper, only in countries that are driven by human capital growth and women are still discriminated against will this lead to economic growth.

Again, this paper isn’t arguing that investing in women’s empowerment is a bad idea. They only want to show if it is grounded in economic growth theory. I guess you could say the paper is more of an indictment on the lack of opportunities in the poorest countries, where you’re better off buying a cow than sending your kid to school.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An interesting perspective on Guatemala City from Author David Unger

David Unger, a Jewish Guatemalan-American author, has written a number of works of fiction set in Guatemala. He caught my attention in an interview from Words without Borders that I wanted to highlight. I hope to read his debut novel Life in the Damn Tropics (2004) soon. The book is set in the early 80s in Guatemala City and narrated by an upper-middle-class Jewish Guatemalan trying to navigate through the complexities of the civil war and deal with the military. His most recent novel, The Price of Escape, is about a Jewish man who flees Nazi Germany for Guatemala, and is forced to deal with this strange unfamiliar land.

When asked about the mood of Guatemala City, Unger, who moved to the US when he was 5 but has since returned regularly, describes two cities: The upper class world of cheap servants, wonderful climate and easy vacations abroad and those that serve the upper class. Their world is one of insecurity, crime and struggle. He describes a moment that for me sums up the upper class attitude towards the indigenous people in the country:

¨One enduring image occurred when I was eighteen and in the car with my aunt. We passed a Guatemalan Indian man carrying maybe twenty or thirty brooms on his back and my aunt began to bargain with him, ostensibly to buy a broom. The negotiation took ten minutes and at the conclusion, my aunt decided not to buy because the man wouldn’t lower his final price by 25 cents. I asked my aunt why she didn’t just pay the extra quarter. She answered that she really didn’t need a broom quite yet and that in any case the man, though he didn’t make the sale, was happy because “Indians love to bargain” (the Spanish word is regatear, a word that implies haggling) even more than selling. My aunt went on to tell me that though doctors encourage the Maya to wear shoes to protect them against worms and infections, they prefer to walk around barefoot, even on the cold concrete and asphalt because that’s how they have always lived. These comments illustrate the pervasive ignorance and cruelty of the ruling classes.¨

Unger sees himself as someone who can write about Guatemala because he left the country, and I agree with him that it gives you a different perspective. As he says, he can peer over that wall of obligations that surround you in your normal life.  He also taught me a new word sextear and it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Sixth Avenue in downtown Guatemala City, (Sexta Avenida in Spanish) is the commercial heart of the city. Today it is a pedestrian street, but it has always been the place for Guatemalans to visit downtown. Well sexteando just means (or at least meant in the 60s) hanging out on Sixth Avenue, window shopping, flirting with girls, going to the cinema.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deforestation and poor land management leading to water problems throughout Guatemala

Environmentalists and scientists agree, deforestation and land management are the biggest concerns for the Environmental Ministry ( MARN) this year. The country is losing around 2% of its forest cover each year. The National Forest Institute (INAB) manages to offset the deforestation by planting around 11,000 hectares of trees each year, but that still means Guatemala is losing 1% of its remaining forest each year. A lot of the deforestation (about 37%) occurs in protected areas that are extremely vital to the country’s aquifers and watersheds.

As trees are cut down in the protected watersheds, water becomes scarcer in these areas. And although Guatemala is considered a country with abundant water resources, in 2011, 10% of the municipalities in the country lacked water for periods of up to ten days at a time.  Thirteen municipalities experienced severe water shortages of more than 15 days.

Communities understand the link between deforestation and have asked the government to take more action in stopping it. In Zacapa, residents complain that the level of the tributaries could become too low for their daily needs and they are blaming it on deforestation. Authorities granted permission to cut down some 27 hectares of trees on private land. And while they claim that the license granted won’t cause problems because it doesn’t allow for the cutting of trees near water sources, residents say they’ve already seen their water levels drop.

One thing MARN can do is assert more control over protected areas. 34% of Guatemala is protected, but most of that land is privately held. In theory, anything done on this land requires the approval of MARN. They do an environmental impact study to determine the effects. In reality, there is virtually no oversight and as for the impact studies, let’s just say, they weren’t seen as the most objective measures under the previous minister.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Some troubling news in the Second Annual Report

Last Tuesday, the President’s state of the union address was held at the National Theater. The President did his best to spin the data in his favor, but fortunately for him, he didn’t really have to. There has been virtually no reporting done on the report in the last week. That is because it has been overshadowed by an incident that happened as the vice president was exiting the theater.

I was standing about 15 feet away from where the incident happened, a few rows up with a perfect view. As the vice was walking up the aisle to the back of the theater, she stopped to greet someone. From behind, two young women approached and dumped some flour on the vice president. In both the English and Spanish press, they described it as an assault or attack. Anyway, the government now says that it was lime (like limestone) not flour, which would certainly change the story. Depending on the form, lime can burn. The vice has been given two weeks, or maybe a month, to recover. I’m a little skeptical. I was standing there. It smelled like flour immediately. Other people dipped their fingers and concluded it was flour. That is what I saw. I certainly don’t condone it, but a pie in the face, or flour in this case, is part of democracy. Anyway, let’s talk about the actual address because so far I’ve only seen one article that discussed it (and I am going to basically just say what it said).

After the President opened his speech stating that he was specifically speaking to the 60% of Guatemalans who support him, which I found strange for an event ostensibly informing the country of current happenings not some political rally, he jumped into his premiere program against malnutrition. The Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger) program aims to eliminate malnutrition and hunger in Guatemala, which has the third highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, according to the World Bank. So how is the program going? According to the president there were 17,568 cases of acute malnutrition in 2013. He didn’t give us anything to compare it to. But his first annual report stated that there were 12,295 cases, meaning that cases have increased by 30%. Other than that, most of the data was vague and difficult to compare with past years.

As for homicides, the President mentioned a huge reduction (49%) in zone 18 of the capital. Without data on surrounding areas, it is impossible to say if this reduction was simply a matter of pushing crime to other areas or a real reduction.

2013 started out as the year of transparency. That hasn’t really worked out for this administration. The year closed out with the vice president accusing Transparency International of collaborating with the previous administration. Needless to say, the President made no mention of transparency in his second address.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watershed Management: If only people had GIS 200 years ago. (Not Guatemala related, maybe boring)

As part of my job here at the Water Resources unit of MARN, I assist in forming watershed management committees around the country. What becomes instantly obvious is the difficulty of forming these committees because rarely do political boundaries (ie country, city, town borders) follow the watershed. When meeting in Mayor’s offices with different community members in order to identify the main players in micro watersheds, it almost always happens that a number of communities are missing. And the reason is usually because they don’t get along well with the other community.

Anyway, the Water Wired blog highlighted a paper from 2002 titled ¨What if…the United States were based on Watersheds?¨ by Gerald Kaufman from the University of Delaware that contains a nice little map of how the US would be drawn up. Kaufman quotes Bill Sharpe here:

¨Every student of hydrology quickly learns that the management of water resources only makes sense when it’s done on a watershed basis. Governments, however, are organized by city, township and county boundaries, which are irrelevant to the natural scheme of things. Thus the challenge has been to make sensible water resources plans out of the nonsense of political subdivisions.¨

Kaufman’s logic is solid, although some of his comments are a little goofy. He laments that the founders didn’t have GIS. He mentions that Mason and Dixon were so close to the watershed boundary, but they lacked ¨sophisticated mapping and surveying skills,¨ and therefore missed the separation of the Delaware river and Chesapeake Bay watersheds by only ¨a couple dozen miles.¨

One place where watershed boundaries in the US do correspond is the West Virginia-Virginia border which was more or less by chance. I’m not familiar with either state’s water management, but would help to know if it is somehow way more efficient (I kind of doubt it, but for different reasons).

The idea of delineating geopolitical boundaries along watershed lines isn’t new. In 1878, John Powell, who was the head of the US Geological Survey was fired for pushing the idea too hard. Apparently in Switzerland they divided up the cantons this way. The US has addressed the problem by creating dozens of watershed management agencies throughout its history. But as the paper discusses, these have usually had a short lifespan and are often neglected as they rely on a large amount of interagency, interstate, and interjurisdictional cooperation.

Kaufman recognizes the impossibility of this vision. And really, as a counterfactual, I’m not sure how much this really teaches us. I guess it just shows that yes, watershed management is hard. And it might be even more so in Guatemala where a recent conflict has left many towns and villages untrusting of their neighbors (to say the least).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Guatemala City’s Rivers Contaminated with Drugs

ElPeriodico reported last week that the two main rivers in Guatemala City, besides being contaminated with the conventional sewage, also contain a lot of drugs. Specifically, they were found to contain:

¨Acetaminophen (paracetamol), caffeine, dexketoprofen (anti-inflammatory), phenylephrine (a vasoconstrictor) and ibuprofen (inflammatory).¨

The story was also picked up in English here. It is troubling for a number of reasons. The rivers are already almost hopelessly contaminated but there have been some efforts at clean-up (especially the water-treatment facility at Amatitlan). However, the water treatment facilities and the plant filtration systems at Amatitlan do not filter out the drugs. Additionally, according to Elisabeth Hernández from the University of San Carlos, who conducted the study, “the majority [of the drugs detected in water] maintain their pharmaceutical activity outside of the environments for which they were designed.” She cited risks including endocrine disruption, kidney damage, bioaccumulation, effects on ecosystems, and entry into the food chain.¨

The Environmental Ministry, in its already limited capacity, does not test for pharmaceuticals in water. The study suggests that most drugs enter the system through normal sewage runoff, i.e. from poop.

This problem is not unique to Guatemala. A report to be published in January will apparently show that in the US there are a lot of drugs in our drinking water and nobody has any idea (or at least political will) as to what they should do.

Credit to Mike from Central American Politics for pointing this out to me—and in turn, the entire Water Testing unit of the Environmental Ministry, who hadn’t seen this either.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment