A year after deadly Maria, Puerto Rico still struggles with aftermath

Even before the Category-4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was financially bankrupt with $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities it cannot pay. A year after Maria, the island is far from prepared for the next big storm, with an ever-fragile power grid, damaged infrastructure and the same crippling debt.

The storm knocked out power and communications to virtually all of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents, while destroying the homes of thousands. Last month, the U.S. Commonwealth’s government sharply raised the official estimate of Maria’s death toll to almost 3,000 after an independent study. The exact death toll figure remains unknown, and the governor has admitted his administration failed to properly record storm-related deaths.

More than 200,000 people left the island after the storm, mostly to the U.S. mainland, according to government data.

There are still some 45,000 homes with so-called “blue roofs,” or tarps installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The San Juan mayor has noted that the island has seen only a fraction of almost $50 billion in recovery funds Congress approved for Puerto Rico, including $20 billion in HUD funds.

“Most of the people that have requested help from FEMA … have not received enough assistance to be able to take care of their problems,” Mayor Cruz said, adding that “a lot of people that don’t have a title deed and they really are not eligible to receive any type of support or help.”

[Reuters]

Gang violence and extortion in Central America

Born in the aftermath of civil war and boosted by mass deportations from the U.S., Central American gangs (maras) in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are responsible for brutal acts of violence, chronic abuse of women, and more recently, the forced displacement of children and families.

But it is extortion that forms the maras’ criminal lifeblood and their most widespread racket. By plaguing local businesses for protection payments, they reaffirm control over poor urban enclaves to fund misery wages for members. The maras have helped drive Central American murder rates to highs unmatched in the world: When the gangs called a truce in El Salvador, homicides halved overnight!

The maras are both victims of extreme social inequity and the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence. Many of the murders in El Salvador and Honduras can be ascribed to confrontations with the police, rivalries, score-settling or intimidation carried out by the two outstanding mara organizations: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13); and the Barrio 18, or Eighteenth Street gang (B-18).

While difficult to know the exact number of mara members today, the U.S. military Southern Command’s estimate of 70,000 in Central America continues to be cited, even though it dates from a decade ago. More recent and specialized studies assert there are 70,000 members in El Salvador alone, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime provides modest estimates of 22,000 in Guatemala, and 12,000 in Honduras. Though imprecise, these figures underline the magnitude of the challenge posed by the gangs.

Violence meted out by the gangs include killings of transport workers, the criminal control exerted over prison systems and the forced displacement of families from their homes. In Guatemala, an estimated 80 per cent of extortions are commanded from prison. El Salvador’s gang-run extortions have been described as a “system of terror that subjects community dwellers to see, hear and remain silent”.

Extortion is the economic engine and represents the largest share of gang income – with an estimated direct cost to businesses of $756 million a year in El Salvador alone. So extreme is extortion in Honduras that the Chamber of Commerce no longer publishes a registry of its members. It is one of the leading causes of forced displacement in gang-controlled communities through the threat it poses to powerless civilians, especially women and children.

[Excerpts from 2017 report by International Crisis Group]

Despite dangers and intimidation, Guatemalans still seek a better life in US

Despite the Trump administration’s immigration clampdown, newly released data show the number of Central American families and unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border illegally has risen sharply.

Why? A day’s wage in Guatemala, tending a cornfield or working on a construction crew, is 40 quetzales — equivalent to $5.23. With this income, a family can afford to eat meat maybe once a week. They cannot send their children to school. And there is no savings to buy a motorcycle or small truck to haul their produce to market, much less build a dream house with cement blocks and indoor plumbing.

Alex Cano knows the American dream first-hand. He worked as a roofer in Jacksonville, Fla., making $120 a day, until he was arrested and deported.

A hundred yards away on the main street, Secundino Funes lives in a rough-hewn house with chickens scurrying in and out. He’s 30 years old, with a wife and five kids. He, too, makes 40 quetzales a day tending a corn plot.

Last year, he borrowed 85,000 quetzales, about $11,000 — an astronomical sum for a subsistence farmer — to make the trip north. He paid a smuggler to take him to Florida where his brother said he could get him a farm job. Funes saw it as his only way out of penury. But the Border Patrol caught him, and now he’s in a predicament. “I owe 85,000 quetzales. I have to pay it back. I can’t earn it here,” Funes says. “So I have to go back to the other side again to earn some money to pay my debt.”

Some Guatemalans, like Funes and Cano, flee to the United States to improve their economic status. Others leave in a hurry to escape gang violence and extortion rings which are epidemic in Central America. The challenge of successive U.S. administrations has been how to convince these Central Americans to stay home.

[NPR]

Reflecting back on the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season will forever be remembered by the people of the Caribbean. During that season, there were 13 named tropical storms, with two of these catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes – Irma and Maria. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall, they caused havoc and devastation in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Sint Maarten, the Bahamas, Saint Barthelemy, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and also impacted the southeastern islands of the Bahamas, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the northern border of Haiti.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane and the most powerful on record, with maximum winds of approximately 185 miles per hour, made a direct hit on the island of Barbuda on September 6. It caused widespread and catastrophic damage throughout its long lifetime, particularly in the northeastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys. It was also the most intense hurricane to strike the continental United States since Katrina in 2005.

Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 hurricane, is regarded as being the worst natural disaster on record to affect Dominica and Puerto Rico, and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. At its peak, the hurricane caused catastrophic damage and numerous fatalities across the northeastern Caribbean, compounding recovery efforts in the areas of the Leeward Islands already struck by Hurricane Irma. (Maria was the third consecutive major hurricane to threaten the Leeward Islands in two weeks, after Irma had made landfall in several of the islands two weeks prior and Hurricane Jose passed dangerously close shortly afterward, bringing tropical storm force winds to Barbuda.) As of August 28, 2018, 3,057 people were estimated to have been killed by the hurricane: 2,975 in Puerto Rico, 65 in Dominica, five in the Dominican Republic, four in the contiguous United States, three in Haiti, two in Guadeloupe, and three in the United States Virgin Islands. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion (2017 USD), mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.

[UN Development; Wikipedia]

The world’s strongest storm this year, a Category 5 hurricane

Typhoon Mangkhut is offcially the world’s strongest storm this year, the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.

Typhoon Mangkhut made landfall in the Philippines on September 15, threatening more than 4 million people, killing at least 54, bringing gale-force winds and heavy rains, causing flooding and setting off landslides.

It has since carved a destructive and deadly path from the Philippines into mainland China. Fierce winds have already torn off roofs, smashed windows and downed trees in Hong Kong, as authorities warned of the threat of storm surges and flooding from torrential rain.

Global Climate Summit calls for bolder action to meet Paris Climate Goals

On the premise that the nations of the world are not doing enough to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Governor Jerry Brown, New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other dignitaries convened a high-profile international gathering in San Francisco September 12-14 to inspire more ambitious action and showcase successful efforts.

The Global Climate Action Summit brought together more than 4,000 leaders from states, regions, cities, corporations, and civil society from around the world. Organizers sought to strengthen efforts so that global greenhouse gas emissions begin trending down by 2020 with the overall goal of keeping global temperature increases to less than  than 1.5°C if possible and by no more than 2° C as defined by the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at a press conference, New York Mayor Bloomberg said people are taking action on climate change because the same steps that help reduce carbon emissions also make cities better places to live and to work. “[In New York City], we were able to cut carbon emissions by nearly 20 percent in just six years, and the steps we took to get there also made our air cleaner than it had been in a quarter of a century. At the same time, we were able to create a record number of jobs. Now other cities around the world are achieving similar results,” he said.

Largely through the actions of the U.S. cities from both Democratic and Republican states belonging to the C40 cities coalition, Bloomberg said, the United States has reduced emissions more than any other large nation in the past decade.

“In fact, last year,” he added, “U.S. emissions fell to their lowest level in 25 years without any help from Washington. The U.S is already half-way to the commitment we made [to meet our Paris Agreement commitment], and … we will get the rest of the way no matter what happens in Washington.”

[Renewable Energy World]

“A Europe that protects” to add six-fold increase of border guards

“A Europe that protects” was the tagline of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech this week, in which he announced plans for an additional 10,000 border guards. This is a massive six-fold increase on the current brigade of 1,600 border guards.

But if it means tighter control and policing of Europe’s borders, then let’s not forget Europe’s other responsibility to ‘protect’, enshrined in the 1951 International Refugee Convention to which all European governments are signatories. This commits governments to provide asylum to people fleeing persecution in their own countries. It also commits governments not to forcibly return people to countries where their lives may be in danger, otherwise known as the ‘principle of non-refoulement’.

Here is a case in point. Many Sudanese arriving irregularly in Europe – usually on flimsy boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean – are Darfuris fleeing persecution in their own country. Those living in refugee camps and student activists are particularly targeted, forcing many young Darfuri men to leave. In search of safety and a secure future, most take a well-worn route to Libya. These days, however, ‘work in Libya’ often means bonded labor.

Political instability and/or conflict in countries neighboring Sudan – such as South Sudan and Egypt – means they have few alternatives when seeking sanctuary from their own country.

So what does Juncker’s ‘Europe that protects’ mean for this group?

[Overseas Development Institute]

Breaking barriers for Rohingya refugee women

Since August 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya people have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh seeking safety and lifesaving assistance. While safe from the unimaginable atrocities they suffered in Myanmar, refugees managed to find shelter in improvised and overcrowded refugee camps such as Cox’s Bazar. Rohingya women in particular face additional challenges: insecurity, violence, very limited mobility or ability to speak up and influence decisions in their communities. Oxfam support these women and girls to proactively overcoming these barriers through the following approaches:

Clothes and tailoring vouchers – As the camp situation forces many women (particularly those from female-headed households) to move outside the ‘home’, it is important to ensure they have access to the clothing that helps them feel safe and dignified. Oxfam is providing families with a tailoring voucher using local vendors from the host community.

Women refugees co-design hygiene facilities – The lack of enough latrines in a big overcrowded camp like Cox’s Bazar is a big issue, especially for women, which leads to very poor hygiene practices, lack of privacy and unsafety, increasing the risk of sexual abuse and harassment. Apart from building more latrines and hygiene facilities, Oxfam has collaborated with architecture students to work with Rohingya refugee women to design toilets and laundry areas that afford more safety and privacy and truly meet their needs. “Women told us it’s important for them not to feel stared at when entering or leaving the toilets. We want to make the routes into the toilets and washing facilities less obvious and more private so that women feel more comfortable to use these facilities” says Freya Emerson, one of the architects.

Solar lighting in the communities – Lack of privacy and fear of assault contribute greatly to women remaining in their shelters. When asked whether they felt safe walking alone in the camp, 29% of women said ‘no’, compared with 5% of men. Furthermore, over a third of women did not feel they had safe access to a water point, bathing facility or latrines. Apart from providing portable solar lamps to the families, Oxfam helped design a solar lighting community-based program in Cox’s Bazar.

And as part of our humanitarian response, we are working with local organizations and communities to tackle wider issues such as early marriage, gender-based violence and men and women’s traditional roles, through women’s groups and musical performances.
[Oxfam International]

UN report on global hunger

New evidence continues to signal that the number of hungry people in the world is growing, reaching 821 million in 2017 or one in every nine people, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018 released today.

Hunger has been on the rise over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago. This reversal in progress sends a clear warning that more must be done and urgently if the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger is to be achieved by 2030.

The situation is worsening in South America and most regions of Africa, while the decreasing trend in undernourishment that characterized Asia seems to be slowing down significantly.

The annual UN report found that climate variability affecting rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons, and climate extremes such as droughts and floods, are among the key drivers behind the rise in hunger, together with conflict and economic slowdowns.

“If we are to achieve a world without hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030, it is imperative that we accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems and people’s livelihoods in response to climate variability and extremes,” the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned said.

[FAO]

Indigenous peoples allies of climate mitigation

As global warming continues to outpace the tepid international response, a range of environmentalists are raising their collective voice to demand full rights and recognition for those long associated with land stewardship connected to climate mitigation: indigenous peoples.

Researchers have released what they called “the most comprehensive assessment to date of carbon storage” on forested lands occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities in 64 tropical countries. And one of the main findings of the research is that indigenous peoples are far better stewards of the land than their countries’ governments.

Indigenous communities often work to keep forests intact, which, in turn, keeps carbon locked in trees, vegetation, roots, and soil instead of seeing it released into the atmosphere through deforestation and soil disturbance for ranching, mining, or timbering.

The study’s release is timed to coincide with the September 12 opening in San Francisco of the three-day Global Climate Action Summit hosted by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The connection between indigenous rights and environmental protection is expected to be a summit highlight.

[Mongabay]