|Central American University - UCA
Number 472 | Noviembre 2020
Before and during the pandemic in Central America:... and after?
The coronavirus has disproportionately hit
Central America’s peoples and communities,
which lack safe water, sanitation and health services,
and any short-term prospect of economic reactivation.
And what about the more long-term future of this region?
This pandemic is no interlude; it’s a crossroads for civilization,
one that demands a new world economic and welfare model,
and a new global environmental and governance agreement.
Regional Research Program on Development and the Environment
Throughout the world, the implications of and responses to the coronavirus pandemic have been shaped by the conditions that previously existed in each country.
Central America before COVID-19
Even before the pandemic, Central America was undergoing a series of far-reaching economic, environmental and political changes that have been exacerbating the exclusion and vulnerability of the majority of the region’s population, especially in rural areas. This situation was part of an international scenario characterized by growing inequality, the exhaustion of traditional forms of political representation, the increasing impacts of climate change and the crisis of multilateralism.
These regional conditions and international dynamics have been combining to produce a conflictive structure in different rural areas. The preexisting processes and trends were setting up competition and conflict between different interested parties that are still with us today. They include:
* Increasingly aggressive and violent pressure for control over land and its resources. Whether related to investments in road or energy infrastructure, the extraction of natural resources or agro-industrial crops, these projects go ahead without social-environmental safeguards, despite the resistance of local affected communities.
* Diversified, regionalized and globalized economic strategies of the private sector, encompassing increasingly more new lands and adopting ever more sophisticated ways of controlling the resources in these lands.
* Climate change, whose impacts make Central America one of the most vulnerable regions. The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events—such as excessive rainfall or drought, a rise in average temperatures and sea levels—exacerbate environmental degradation and the rural inhabitants’ exclusion.
* The use of Central American countries for trafficking drugs and humans due to their geographical position. In recent years, increased investment has expanded the territorial control of those involved in this, diversifying their activities and penetration of both legal and illegal new market niches.
* The option of migration by increasingly more people faced with this adverse context as a way to improve their conditions and even safeguard their lives. The magnitude of this phenomenon is such that it has become a structural element in the migrants’ countries of origin, destination and transit.
* The reaction of communities of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples inhabiting the rural lands in dispute by mobilizing and resisting, adopting new forms of community and territorial organization and forming social movements to defend their rights and natural resources.
Nation States, “Failed States”
In Central America there is an open debate about nation States, sometimes described as “failed States” due to the ineffectual presence of state institutions in rural areas, and to their corruption and inability to stop human rights violations and meet the whole population’s needs.
The ineffectiveness and contradictions of the region’s state structures are the result of forces that shaped and continue to shape their priorities. Authoritarian tendencies observed in Central America over the last decade further complicate land governance scenarios.
The best-known case is that of Nicaragua, due to the repression unleashed against the 2018 protests that left hundreds dead and thousands in exile.
Honduras has seen a systematic increase in human rights violations of rural leaders and communities, making this one of the most dangerous countries for environmental advocates, according to Global Witness. In Guatemala, the institutional mechanisms that enabled progress in the struggle against corruption and impunity in previous years are being dismantled.
And in El Salvador, a major military presence is observed in the country’s social and political life amid growing political polarization, which this year led to an attempt to dissolve the Legislative Assembly.
All these trends in the already very challenging context have marked the responses of Central America’s governments to COVID-19.
The arrival of COVID-19
The health crisis caused by the coronavirus exposed and complicated still further the chronic problems of inequality, vulnerability and insecurity, as well as the weak democratic systems that have historically characterized the region.
At first, just like many other governments around the world, the Central American governments saw the health threat as a distant epidemic. Until the first cases were reported in the region, in March 2020, the countries took very few measures to prevent and prepare to confront the pandemic and had very weak health and social protection systems.
In March, with the expectation that the health crisis would be short-lived, the region’s governments began to adopt greater or lesser containment measures, mainly national home quarantines, to quickly flatten the infection curve. Physical distancing measures somewhat slowed the virus’ advance.
We must assume that official figures began to be much lower than the real ones after a few months of the pandemic, given the countries’ limited capacity to do mass testing combined with the evident lack of transparency in various countries’ official data.
The pandemic and rural areas
As a large part of the Central American population depends on the informal economy to generate income, quarantines and physical distancing were increasingly less socially and economically sustainable.
Governments then began to draw up and implement economic reopening plans even before the infection curve had flattened. Now, at the end of 2020, the region is still looking for a way to “coexist” with the virus, while waiting for a cure or a vaccine.
The economic reopening plans, although established in stages, today face the dilemmas of a disease with a highly uncertain evolution, which means that all Central American governments and societies are acting in the midst of many unknowns. One of them is how the disease will develop in rural areas.
During the first months of the pandemic, the vast majority of cases were concentrated in the cities but the number of affected people in rural areas is expected to rise, albeit slowly due to lower population density. Conditions in some rural areas, such as proximity to cities, are already minimizing the advantage of less population density. Outbreaks have also been reported in fruit and vegetable packing plants and in mining sites. In other places, attempts are being made to prevent infection associated with the harvest season, such as that of coffee, which takes place at the end of the year.
Although the disease continues to spread at a relatively slower pace among the rural population, the lack of health service coverage in these areas will complicate matters. The reality is that the pandemic has disproportionately affected traditionally marginalized Central American populations and communities, those lacking access to safe drinking water, basic sanitation and health services.
The governments’ responses:
The Central American States are structured on presiden¬tialism, which concentrates resources and intervention capacity in the central government.
The Central American governments’ responses were first aimed at preventing the transmission of the virus. With varying emphasis, most governments took unprecedented measures to limit people’s mobility. Additionally, they channeled resources to strengthen hospital capacities and took social protection measures by offering businesses credit lines and support or stimulus subsidies.
Delays and inconsistencies in the implementation of these measures made more apparent the governments’ structural weaknesses: the absence of strategic plans, lack of technical capacities, weak health and social protection systems, and also corruption scandals. Furthermore, under the protection of extraordinary plans, governments and security forces have made discretionary use of coercive measures, accentuating their well-known authoritarian characteristics.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama suspended constitutional guarantees, such as freedom of movement and assembly, in order to ensure compulsory lockdowns. They also suspended public transport, although permitting the movement of workers in sectors considered priorities.
In Costa Rica, the government applied no compulsory lockdowns or prohibited the flow of public transport, although it did restrict that of private vehicles and closed down businesses in accordance with health zoning.
Nicaragua’s response has been very different. The government denied that the country was at risk from the pandemic and implemented no lockdowns or limitations on economic, educational or even festive activities.
Central American health systems demonstrate significant gaps in their capacity to respond to the health crisis. Only Costa Rica had an epidemiological control system initially able to contain the pandemic, although its health capacity was exceeded as infections increased.
The other countries lacked the capacity to actively search for cases, turning their efforts to strengthening their hospital network by purchasing supplies and medical equipment, and setting up temporary hospitals or, in the case of El Salvador, permanent ones.
The cost of closing
down the economies
The containment measures also included shutting down companies and commercial establishments. While these restrictions had a different scope in each country, the governments have been unable to maintain them, due to their impact on family and business revenue, producing social protests in Honduras and business associations’ refusal to comply in El Salvador and Costa Rica.
By early August, all the governments were already easing or lifting the measures that had limited economic activity for months.
Faced with rising unemployment, all the countries—except Nicaragua—implemented measures to help families that had lost income: deferring payments for water, electricity and Internet services, postponing the payment of bank loans or reducing taxes. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica they also implemented monetary transfers, albeit with different state capacities to plan and distribute them.
Guatemala and Costa Rica provided a monthly “bonus” to poverty-stricken or unemployed households, while in El Salvador a one-off monetary voucher was distributed to selected households, subsequently exchanged for the delivery of food parcels. Guatemala and Honduras also created and expanded government food distribution programs.
All of these measures brought real, albeit brief, relief to millions of people with food insecurity. It must be added that these actions were not without political clientelism.
Lack of money, no food
Central American countries are highly dependent on imported basic food staples— Guatemala imports 100% of the rice it consumes and Costa Rica 80% of its white corn and beans, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). There was thus fear about a possible shortage of these basic foodstuffs.
The government of El Salvador temporarily eliminated import tariffs on flour, rice and beans, and also directly purchased food in international markets to include in the food packets distributed by the presidency. Salvadoran farmers’ associations criticized the import of corn instead of supporting local ´growers, whose harvest was sufficient to cover demand in 2020.
The international market currently has enough food reserves to supply Latin America’s demand for the coming months. In the short term, the main risk is not a shortage of food but the large number of people who lack the money to buy it.
Authoritarian practices and the
entrenchment of presidentialism
Limiting constitutional guarantees—rights to movement and assembly—caused concern in several Central American countries where authoritarian practices had already been observed.
In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador the measures taken to curb the pandemic also served to deter or suppress social protest. The Army’s role was expanded in these three countries.
In Honduras, the military took over administration of the temporary hospitals erected in various parts of the country.
In El Salvador, the armed forces became more prominent by being involved in most state interventions: food distribution, pest control, rescuing victims of the tropical storms that coincided with the advance of the pandemic.
Authoritarian practices have also resulted in the entrenchment of presidentialism, which asserts its power over the other branches of government and weakens audit and regulatory authorities. This trend strengthened in Honduras and Nicaragua. It is also being established in El Salvador, where the country’s institutional landscape was already marked before the pandemic by the presidency’s conflictive relationship with the Legislative Assembly and rejection of arbitration by the Court of Justice’s Constitutional Chamber.
Local authorities in all the Central American countries have legal autonomy from the executive branch and a set of competencies that enable them to implement actions to protect health, ensure food security or promote economic activities. In every country, however, there are insufficient human, technical and financial resources to exercise that autonomy.
Faced with the pandemic, a few municipalities in the region accomplished innovative actions such as deploying promoters to detect infected people. Other, largely urban municipalities responded with the usual actions: enhancing street cleaning with disinfectant, implementing security protocols in the markets and/or regulating informal commerce in public spaces.
Most municipal governments do not appear to have taken special measures to respond to the pandemic.
The international financial
Between March and June 2020, the International Monetary Fund approved loans for a global sum of US$ 2.145 billion for Central American governments, excepting those of Belize and Nicaragua. The loans were to strengthen health systems and catalyze additional financial support from other cooperation agencies.
Between April and June 2020, the World Bank approved loans for Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama (US$ 20 million for each country) to strengthen national public health systems.
The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) launched a program to support efforts to prevent and contain the health emergency in all its member countries. Available resources exceed US $1.95 billion and include US$ 600 million in financing for public sector operations, US$1 billion in loans to support the liquidity of Central Banks and US$ 350 million in support for banks to finance economic reactivation and strengthen the business framework through financial products (investments and securities) for the region’s micro, small and medium companies (MIPYMEs).
Between March and July 2020, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) conducted more than 20 financial operations to support Central America in confronting the pandemic, with a global sum of over US$ 2 billion. These operations included loans to support macroeconomic and fiscal sustainability with amounts ranging from US$ 76 million for Honduras to US$ 400 million for Panama; and loans to support the health sector and protect income, employment and economic recovery, especially that of micro and small businesses.
by the US and Europe
The tenuous US presence through USAID stands out in bilateral cooperation for not modifying its previous priorities, continuing to focus on reducing irregular migration to the United States with projects aimed at reducing crime rates and perceived insecurity, increasing investment, creating jobs and increasing tax collection, improving confidence in public institutions and the fight against corruption.
The US position contrasts with the European Union’s vision, which has raised the need to respond to the crisis in a coordinated manner, stressing the importance of the 2030 Agenda and the European Green Pact, initiatives that would be the main framework for EU cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean.
Responses of the FAO and ECLAC
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) are making policy recommendations to prevent the health crisis caused by the pandemic from becoming a food crisis.
They also emphasize that the way out of the crisis must be based on the principle of “rebuilding better” and in strengthening resilience and social inclusion. ECLAC’s assessments and proposals regarding the pandemic highlight the need for a new development model for Latin America and the Caribbean, with emphasis on responding to the challenge of sustainability and inequality.
Three crossroads for
Although all this international support for Central America is temporary, it reflects three crucial global crossroads that international cooperation is facing today.
One: Should we view COVID-19 as a factor that changes international relations, including development cooperation, or will it accelerate preexisting trends?
Two: Is the pandemic leading to an improvement in multilateralism and international cooperation, or will it reinforce bilateral cooperation and the formation of blocs between like-minded countries?
Three: Will the role of international cooperation be decisive in the management of a “rapid recovery” or an “intelligent recovery?
Responses of the
The responses by Central America’s business sectors to the health crisis have varied, depending on the consequences to their investments.
The pharmaceutical industry, supermarket chains, logistical services companies, telecommunications and e-commerce have benefited. Tourism has been severely affected.
Despite the differences in the impact on different enterprises, new strategies are already beginning to be profiled in the business groups. In some cases, they have redirected their activities to provide essential goods and services to confront the pandemic. The hotel sector has rented its facilities to citizens coming from abroad who have to be quarantined. Some industries have redirected their production to manufacture personal protective equipment, taking advantage of their executive relations with state officials to acquire public contracts which, given the health emergency, are often expedited without going through time-consuming bidding, exposing cases of corruption in several countries.
Parallel to the strategies of adapting to the new context, business associations and think tanks associated with the private sector have also influenced the handling of the health crisis and economic reactivation. They lobbied for limiting the temporal, sectoral and territorial range of the lockdown measures. They also lobbied for easing labor commitments and contracts and demanded subsidies at would enable them to maintain jobs and productive activities.
In El Salvador, the Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) criticized the strict quarantine measures and, in conjunction with other social organizations, proposed plans for economic reactivation long before the government decided to reopen the economy. In Costa Rica, although there was very good coordination between the business groups and the State at the beginning of the health crisis, conflicts arose at a later stage over the government’s health decisions, highly criticized by the business sector.
The economic reactivation strategies proposed by several countries’ business associations range from promoting the consumption of national products—promoted in a digital campaign by the Honduran Council for Private Enterprise (COHEP)—to attracting national and foreign investment for priority sectors such as infrastructure and tourism.
Business sectors have also joined in pointing out the need for rethinking the State’s role, aimed at improving health and education conditions, vital to improving the labor markets. They also propose unemployment benefits to prevent sharp drops in demand and consumption.
Responses of illegal sectors:
drug traffickers, gang members, etc.
Faced with the closure of borders and quarantines, illegal actors moving in the region have changed their strategies and modus operandi.
Some strategies involve increasing drug prices and fees for human trafficking. In the case of drug dealing, new ways of distributing drugs have involved people authorized to travel during the quarantine, such as those entrusted with home deliveries and courier services.
These illegal actors are also diversifying their activity portfolio: theft of medical supplies and more sophisticated scams through fraudulent electronic communications. The Honduran Social Security Institute reported the theft of N95 masks and P-100 protection filters. In Costa Rica, the circulation of an application was reported that provides interactive maps of the locations of COVID-19 propagation then uses¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬ the access permission to block the users’ smartphone and demand US $100 in Bitcoin within 48 hours as ransom to prevent all information on the phone being deleted. It was also reported that 20 pieces of medical equipment destined for COVID-19 patients were stolen in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Gangs are also taking advantage of the emergency to strengthen their control in the territories by consolidating links with the communities or through intimidation. In Guatemala City, the two largest gangs in Zone 18 announced that they were temporarily waiving extortion charges due to the health emergency.
Salvadoran gangs enforced the strict national quarantine imposed by the government, threatening to beat up any who didn’t comply, an action that involved national coordination between gangs so as to prevent the police entering the territories they control.
Responses of the
Rural communities and indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples have been noticeably impacted by the pandemic due to their precarious conditions of survival.
The health emergency has directly affected their activities: agricultural production, making handicrafts, rural tourism, fishing… They have been significantly affected by restrictions on marketing their products due to the closure of roads and borders, epidemiological cordons, lack of public transport, and the closure of markets, local fairs and restaurants.
All the imposed measures caused the loss of large quantities of food, affected incomes and reduced jobs. In Chimaltenango, Guatemala, farmers were forced to bury their produce because it wasn’t harvested in time and rotted. They also didn’t have the funds needed to pay daily wages. A proliferation of white flags, signaling hunger, was seen in some rural areas. Both realities were clear signs that the food systems weren’t responding to the most vulnerable groups’ needs.
Some organizations distributed bags of basic foodstuffs to ensure the food supply. Actions with a food sovereignty approach also emerged. In several cases, with trade interrupted, communities resorted to bartering among themselves. Experiences such as that of CONFRAS in El Salvador were aimed at strengthening food production capacities by delivering agro-ecological packages to cooperatives and women’s and youth committees to increase climate resilience and food sovereignty, and improve soil fertility, carbon sequestration and water harvesting. This action was done at virtually the same time as the government’s delivery of agricultural packages that are still promoting the use of agrichemicals.
There are some noteworthy response experiences of community tourism, whose coordination with the family agriculture food systems became an important strength. Although tourist facilities have been economically affected, they have the advantage of being linked to agricultural, beekeeping and fishing activities, which has enabled some businesses to become food providers. Such is the case with the Chirripó Chamber of Rural Community Tourism Developers in the Pérez Zeledón area of Costa Rica, which started the initiative “Connecting with the land to cultivate hope in the midst of COVID-19,” consisting of using people’s backyards to plant root and other vegetables for home and community consumption.
Responses of the indigenous
and Afro-descendant communities
The pandemic reached indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ lands, which are already characterized by neglect, the risk of food insecurity and the prevalence of other diseases—dengue, malaria and tuberculosis—involving increased risks of infection, morbidity and death, especially among the elderly, who are the repositories of ancestral knowledge in many communities.
Many of these peoples live in remote areas, with poor connectivity and communication, and limited access to sufficient information, particularly in their own languages, which hampers dissemination of prevention measures. Despite all this, the communities have shown resilience and organizational capacity with local solutions to control the spread of the virus.
In the first months of the pandemic, many communities stopped letting people enter and leave their territories for several days and established health controls and surveillance systems, in coordination with local authorities and public health bodies. In indigenous and Afro-descendant lands, information campaigns included communication in their own languages on community radios, and the promotion of traditional preventive medicine. The Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests implemented the Community Communicators Network, which was crucial to channeling information and educating the population about the measures to be taken against the pandemic.
The pandemic didn’t stop
Community organizations have had to continue their fight against megaprojects and the expansion of monocropping, thus exposing their members to infection as their mobilizations take place in public spaces.
In El Salvador, inhabitants of the indigenous community of Nahuizalco, together with environmentalist movements, demonstrated against the reactivation of the fourth dam project on the Sensunapán River. This project, in addition to adversely affecting biodiversity, will limit access to resources important to their handicrafts and agriculture-based livelihoods.
In Guatemala, the Petén Community Forests Association is facing a threat due to the possible approval of legislation in the US Congress and in Guatemala to create an “ecological tourist resort” in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. This legislation threatens the livelihoods of the communities that live in this protected area and have conserved its forests through community forestry for over two decades.
In Honduras there have been increased threats and attacks on members of COPINH and OFRANEH, organizations of the Lenca and Garifuna peoples. These two organizations have long fought to defend their communities’ rights against hydroelectric and mining projects and against African palm monocropping. Both have been assuming a leading role in responding to the State’s deficient of the pandemic in the territories.
The step to economic reactivation
The health measures governments are advancing to address the emergency caused by COVID-19 have generated more fiscal spending, less economic activity and a drop in tax revenue during this unprecedented global crisis of uncertain duration, scope and outcome, with impacts that could end up greater than those caused by the 2008-9 global recession and become comparable to the great world recession of the 1930s.
In these circumstances, economic reactivation is not envisaged as a clear stage in the near future. In fact, attempts to reopen economic activities have had to adapt to a recurrence of infections forcing it to postpone and in some cases reverse attempts to return to normality.
What does the World Bank anticipate?
The World Bank warns of an even greater risk, noting that there could be a series of bankruptcies. The economic consequences could be amplified to financial institutions, which could be at risk as bad debt increases. Households could lose confidence and reduce spending and even solvent companies could suspend their investments. Thus, a temporary economic freeze to slow the epidemic’s spread, could turn into a permanent crash.
According to the World Bank, instead of a rapid recovery, the economy could succumb to a prolonged recession, which is why a long-term perspective with the fundamental pillars of employment and economic transformation is needed, while countries recover their development agenda.
How does ECLAC see it?
ECLAC goes further in its post COVID-19 recovery approach, highlighting that the way to recovery matters as much as the recovery itself. According to ECLAC, the pandemic has revealed a critical juncture in which it is not possible to just record short-term or immediate effects and impacts without taking into account the structural issues that have shown the need for profound transformation.
ECLAC sees the pandemic not as an interlude but as an expression of an extreme situation, a turning point or crossroads for civilization that demands a new accumulation regime, a different welfare and social protection regime and a new global environmental agreement and global governance.
Three fundamental elements
inform two visions of the future
In Central America, the pandemic has made three fundamental elements very clear. First, nation States play a primary role in dealing with threats of this magnitude, and at the same time have profound structural weaknesses in providing basic services and ensuring social protection. Second, the emergency has worsened the territories’ vulnerability due to poverty and exclusion. And third, the inevitable economic reactivation actions must be promoted by the business sectors and governments but also by the rural communities.
With these three elements in mind, what future development scenarios and agendas are being outlined in Central America and what would their consequences be in the rural territories?
There are two main approaches to the post COVID-19 recovery stage. One is a continuation of the current development model, focused on a speedy recovery of economic growth. The other involves various ideas aimed at transformation and a different development model, with proposals ranging from the reformist approach promoted by development organizations based on the emerging advance of the green economy, to the social movements’ promotion of alternative visions such as food sovereignty, agroecology and solidarity economy paradigms.
If everything stays the same:
more megaprojects and extractivism...
The first approach leaves intact the structures that foster patterns of exclusion, inequality and environmental degradation.
In this scenario, the priority of governments, even more in debt than before from dealing with the pandemic, is to increase economic growth rates based on expanding extractive activities, exporting more agro-industrial crops and other raw materials, and constructing large infrastructure projects. For all this they propose new fiscal incentives, eliminating or easing environmental safeguards and making labor conditions more precarious. Some Central American countries could emphasize gold mining, an activity that can provide short-term tax revenue, as gold is a refuge in times of crisis and its price and demand are increasing.
Among the proposals to promote reactivation are investment attraction campaigns, the adoption of measures to facilitate the restarting of business operations and creation of new companies, and capacity-strengthening to improve the region’s competitiveness.
With governments more concerned to attract investment than address environmental and social vulnerabilities in the rural areas, public policies lose relevance, as do environmental, climate and social protection agendas. Local consent mechanisms for investment projects in rural communities and indigenous and Afro-descendant territories are already merely formal bureaucratic procedures in some asymmetrical political-economic contexts, but in others they are still at least spaces for negotiating compensation or mitigation measures between the companies and the communities. But with governments desperately in search of investment, these mechanisms use their validity.
...and more state authoritarianism
What kind of State is envisioned in this scenario? Worrying trends were observed even before the pandemic, such as the erosion of mechanisms to prevent the State being used for cronyism or to expand the role of the military and police.
Employing military personnel in areas other than defense and public security is known to cause a culture of secrecy in public administration and poses the danger of militarizing political life as it opens the doors to overtly authoritarian or dictatorial practices when governments have a legitimacy crisis.
For now, different governments are trying to cement their social base by relying on clientelism, giving speeches calling for “national unity” and systematically smearing critics and opponents. All this, which is already underway, not only favors corruption in large public or private investment projects but also entails a favorable context for the criminalizing and repressing of social movements and community and territorial leaders who oppose these projects. The pandemic added a level of normality to the existing characteristics of social control mechanisms, legitimating authoritarian speeches and practices.
If the pre-pandemic model is maintained, the autonomy and negotation capacity of communities and local and territorial governments will suffer setbacks; peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant economies will become even more precarious; community lands will be dispossessed and their demonstrations and leaders will be criminalized. This would result in an increase in rural poverty.
A “leave no one behind” development
Those who advocate a change in the development model argue that the pandemic has exposed the current model’s huge structural flaws and they thus consider it necessary to move towards a different model based on sustainable development.
These are the approaches grouped under the Agenda 2030 banner. It proposes Sustainable Development Goals that consider “the new normal” concept very limited. They view the pandemic as a watershed that opens the possibility of rethinking development from a “leave no one behind” welfare concept with a rights perspective that, as ECLAC put it, responds to “the great historical gaps the pandemic has exacerbated.”
ECLAC’s post COVID-19 reactivation approach implies returning to the Welfare State concept, strengthening planning capacity and having the public resources and policy instruments to promote productive capacities while also implementing universal, redistributive and rights-based solidary policies.
The advance of the green economy
The advance of the green economy is proposed for the productive sphere, in which economic shareholders adapt their business models to environmental requirements. Doing this would energize an economic recovery that includes the challenges of sustainable development.
Before the pandemic, the incursion of peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant sectors into sustainable market niches was already being seen in Central America, generated from certifications such as the Forest Stewardship Council in the case of lumber, or “fair trade” labels for coffee and cocoa.
More recently, the incursion of agro-industrial and power generation sectors into these areas has also been observed. However, these trends aren’t without contradictions, given the risk that the path to sustainability will depend on technological improvements instead of social transformations. For example, modernizing sugar cane production processes requires increasingly less labor.
Another case is the unquestionable success of several community initiatives that have connected with the green eco¬nomy, such as community forestry in Mexico and Guatemala or Panama’s indigenous and community tourism, which continue to be highly dependent on the markets of developed countries, themselves currently facing uncertain recovery.
While not directly mentioning it, the proposed model change assumes reforming the State, which would involve dismantling the neoliberal institutional framework, opening up new opportunities for rural territories in an already very vulnerable Central America, both socially and environmentally.
The FAO and ECLAC both talk of economic and social reactivation with a focus on resilience, based on promoting policies that would enable the transition to more sustainable production systems and be better able to deal with future risks.
We must go further and
question power relations
The social movements’ change agenda has a strong political content that aims to go beyond making adjustments to the development model. To go further, it will be necessary to find common ground with sustainable production, inclusive policies and war on poverty models, which always causes arguments over the content and scope of the changes.
Even before the pandemic, diverse initiatives and interested parties were already promoting alternative food systems and agro-ecological practices. Most were community initiatives from cooperatives, peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant organizations, and consumer associations. They focused on guaranteeing livelihoods and responding to local needs, forming alliances with aid workers, municipal governments and governmental food purchasing programs.
Private companies, including transnationals, have also been promoting agro-ecological techniques in agro-industrial crops, linking up with fair trade networks and participating in certification programs. However, all this may go no further than adopting technological tools to adjust agro-industry to the challenges of environmental sustainability and climate change, while existing power relations remain unquestioned.
Visions and perspectives rethinking who and what rural territories are for, putting peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant families at the center of the response, must go much further.
Strengthening the communities is imperative
The agendas of the Central American nation States respond to various interests. Contradictions between public inclusion, human rights and sustainable development policies on the one hand, and public policies promoting agro-industrial crops, mining or infrastructure projects that threaten the rights and livelihoods of rural communities on the other are ongoing. These contradictions will not only continue to exist, but could be reinforced if what is sought is rapid economic recovery and if the presence of illegal interests in and control of the rural territories increases.
Faced with the very real possibility that post-COVID-19 economic reactivation exacerbates the trends that have generated environmental degradation, exclusion and inequalities, strengthening community structures and territorial governance systems to promote better living conditions for the rural population becomes imperative. To achieve this, having strong community organizations is essential, especially in their life and development strategies based on their close relationship with their lands and natural resources.
The pandemic showed that it is essential to continue strengthening self-sufficiency strategies for food, water, energy and medicine because they increase resilience capacities and help guarantee the autonomy of community processes when humanitarian aid is implemented in the form of clientelism.
It’s time for alliances with the communities
Given the asymmetry of resources and power, it is important to cultivate alliances with other sectors also interested in impacting the conditions of degradation and exclusion. There has to be coordination of the rural with the urban, local with global, and producers with consumers.
The governance systems of the rural territories, the people who live in them and their agendas are proving to be an important counterweight to authoritarian tendencies, extractivism and illicit activities. As the pandemic has shown, they are now also challenged to build resilience to a sudden and global crisis such as this one.
This is the time to channel their capacities and strengthen their proposals. Local communities and indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples can lead an agenda of change with their forms of organization.
An edited abstract by envío of the Regional Research Program on Development and the Environment (PRISMA) document titled COVID 19: Respuestas de Actores y Escenarios para la Gobernanza Teritorial (COVID 19: Responses of Interested parties and Scenarios for Territorial Governance).