Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Coca in Peru and Colombia, and the stupidity of the war on drugs

"Why are Peru, Colombia Coca Numbers Going in Opposite Directions?"
That was the headline on a recent Insight Crime report. I am a fan of the site, which focuses on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, offering valuable reporting and analysis.
But the answer to the question posed in that headline seems obvious.
Cocaine demand isn't going down. Market forces mean suppliers will find ways to meet the demand.
So if Peru is producing less coca, the leaves that end up as cocaine, Colombia or some other country will be producing more.
And Peru is producing less, thanks to government eradication campaigns. "Peru has reduced coca cultivation by almost one-third in the last five years, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and in 2015 the country registered the lowest amount of coca sown in the last 15 years," the website reports.
But across the border in Colombia, things are different. Colombia went through its own eradication campaigns, cutting coca cultivation in half between 2007 and 2012.
The graph with the article shows the result. As Peru's cultivation went down, Colombia's increased to help meet the global demand for cocaine.
In 2011, the two countries had about the same number of hectares under coca cultivation, for a combined total of 126,200.
Last year, Peru's cultivation had been reduced by about 22,000 hectares and Colombia's had increased by 32,000 hectares. The combined total was 136,300.
The article offers some explanations for the trends, including community resistance to eradication efforts in Colombia and the involvement of FARC's left-wing guerrillas in production.
But the underlying reality has been established through almost a century of failed, wildly expensive efforts to deal with drug issues by limiting supply.
Cut production in one area, and another country will increase production to fill the gap. Make it harder to get heroin, and users will turn to prescription opiates. Crack down on the availability of those drugs, and fentanyl emerges as a more deadly alternative.
Attacking the supply side of the drug equation didn't work when the U.S. introduced Prohibition to end alcohol sales in 1920. It hasn't worked in the 45 years since U.S. president Richard Nixon announced a war on drugs.
Yet governments, including Canada, continue the costly, futile and ultimately destructive efforts, ignoring the obvious evidence of their failure, and the terrible damage that has been done.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The sad story of the little railway that couldn't

I wrote about the Island Corridor Foundation and the E&N rail line for The Tyee.
You can read the piece here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letter from Managua: The working life

Our house has a room for a servant.
Well, not a room really. More like a cell. Nine feet long, less than six feet wide. There’s a single bed and sink, toilet and shower. A small window high up on one wall, three hooks to hang clothes.
We don’t have a ‘chica,’ the term generally used for the woman - usually young - who cleans the house, cooks meals and looks after the children.
Better a bad job than no job
In Honduras, Rosa came once a week to clean. Often, she brought her children. On cleaning days, I tidied the house before they got there and then went to buy soft drinks for her and any children who showed up. (I’m not using her real name.)
We didn’t need anyone to clean our small house. But Rosa was a single mom. Her husband, her charming nine-year-old daughter told me soon after we met, drank too many beers, dove into the river near their tiny house, hit his head on a rock and died. We visited their house just before we left - two rooms, dirt floor, concrete block walls, wood cooking fire, water from a tap just down the hill, broken treadle sewing machine out the back. Rosa had taken a sewing course and invited us to her graduation, where she wore a pale blue satin dress she had made. 
Here in Nicaragua, house cleaners are entitled to a minimum wage of $235 a month Canadian. That’s for a six-day work week, 12 hours a day. About 75 cents an hour. And employers can deduct up to 50 per cent for room and board.
We don’t need, or want a cleaner. I’d feel guilty about paying too little, foolish paying too much for a service I didn’t even want and hate the idea of sharing our house. But I know the job, poorly paid or not, would have been welcomed by someone.
A Cuso International placement plunks you into the middle of life in another country. You move beyond the statistics about GDP per capita ($42,000 in Canada and $4,500 here) and begin to understand what it means to live in a poor country. 
The Nicaraguan government sets minimum wages for different types of jobs. They increased eight or nine per cent this year, a jump that met the business community’s desire to avoid double-digit raises, but reflected the need to increase incomes, a six-per-cent inflation rate and the fact this is an election year.
The highest paid category - people who work in construction or financial institutions - has a minimum salary of $335 a month. Agricultural workers have a minimum wage of $150, government workers about $190. 
Some people are paid above the minimum wage, of course. But most are paid less. About 70 per cent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economy and minimum wages and other labour rules don’t apply. 
It’s a poor country. Second poorest in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank, ahead of perpetually lowest-ranked Haiti. And I have seen really poor people, living in houses of sticks and mud, sometimes worse.
But there are people with money here. We can walk to a mall and see a movie in a theatre nicer than any in Victoria. People line up for $4 lattes, and restaurants with prices in American dollars do well. Another mall has just completed a $36 million expansion with some flashy clothes stores. I’m going to buy a few shirts from Pull and Bear before we head to Canada. 
Partly, the issue is inequality. In Canada, the people in the top 20 per cent have an average income about six times as great as the people in the bottom 20 per cent. In Nicaragua, they have an average income 11 times higher. 
All of which makes development work interesting. A focus on getting people into the labour market isn’t necessarily productive, given low wages and limited opportunity. CATIE, my organization, is working on increasing incomes and food security for rural agricultural families. That makes sense.
More than one-third of Nicaraguans have a different solution in mind. A survey last month found 36 per cent of Nicaraguans were interested in emigrating. (Down from 52 per cent a year ago.) But they don’t want to stay away - more than 60 per cent of those interested in emigrating saw it as a way to make enough money to come home and start a business (38 per cent), pay debts or buy a house, or as an opportunity to study and improve their skills before returning to Nicaragua.
Which suggests Canada’s biggest development contribution could be opening the door a bit wider for people just looking for a chance to get ahead.

Friday, February 26, 2016

All in all, I'd rather have cheap, bad buses

I've begun to treat my bus ride to work as a sign of how the day is going to go.
If I have an OK seat, not too crunched, and arrive not limping, I bounce away from the bus singing. Nod cheerily to the man with the wire cages full of puppies and the two guys who spend their days turning pallets into furniture by the side of the road.
It's an easy commute. I walk about 10 minutes to the Carreterra Masaya, the main road south out of Managua. Cross to a bus stop and wait.
A lot of buses are going my way, heading to towns in the south and passing my office about five km down the road. I rarely wait more than five minutes.
About a quarter of the time I'm on "la famosa banquita," as a newspaper described the little bench on the right in the photo above. It's less than ideal. The roof is often so low my chin is resting on my chest, and we passengers intertwine knees in an intimate way.
Those little benches are apparently illegal, the newspaper revealed this week.
The real surprise to me was that there are are rules. I thought it was a free-for-all. Buses cram in as many people as they can, stack freight on the roof or in the aisle. Seats are always ripped out and replaced with smaller versions, closer together. In Canada, I'm average size. On the buses, I am Andre the Giant. And the only gringo.
La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario reported this week that bus drivers in the north are angry they are being fined for having passengers standing in the aisle or sitting on that little bench, and for carrying too much freight or speeding.
I had no idea standing was prohibited. I can choose between three bus types most days. Minivans of varying sizes. Aged school buses. And those airport-shuttle-sized minibuses.
The shuttle buses are the worst. The aisles are about 10 inches wide, literally, and the ayudantes - the conductors who collect the money and encourage people into the bus at each stop - cram them with people. The process of fighting my way off, brushing bums and stepping on feet, begins to worry me long before my stop.
The minivans, if you wait for one with some space, are fine. Less so if people, doubled over under the low roof, are standing in every available spaces.
The aged school buses are slow and wrecked, but cheaper - 35 cents compared to 50 cents for the other two options - and they aren't crowded. A status thing, I think. Though they too have been reworked, seats replaced to allow more rows.
None of them have ever seemed to operate under any rules. People are jammed in relentlessly and even if you have a seat someone's sweaty stomach - or worse - will be resting on you shoulder, a baby balanced on your head, a satchel in your face.
In Belize, a somewhat more orderly country with rules against standing passengers, we were on a bus approaching a police checkpoint. The driver called out "Down." Everyone standing in the aisle crouched in a choreographed movement worth of Busby Berkeley and we sped through looking like a bus full of seated people.
That wouldn't work here. It is often impossible to move, let alone pretend to be seated.
The bus drivers say that if the police are going to start enforcing the rules, bus fares are going to have to increase 35 per cent
That seems reasonable. Bus prices are cheap, less than $3 Canadian for the 90-km trip to Leon. That's partly because they carry a lot of people and speed sometimes. Take that away, and prices will go up.
It's hard to criticize the government for working on bus safety. The boat disaster brought attention to the whole transportation issue.
And there have been a few bad bus crashes too. This week, Pedro García Urbina was sentenced to one to four years in jail. His bus ran off the road Jan. 21. Eight people died, 66 were hurt and the court found he was speeding and the bus was overcrowded and badly maintained. (I don't know how fair the justice system is, but it's quick. Crash Jan. 21, guilty verdict less than six weeks later.)
I've had a few bad drivers, and obviously bad buses. It's very unpleasant to stand for four hours.
But mostly, the service is fast and acceptable.
And affordable.
All in, my stipend as a volunteer is about 10 per cent below B.C. minimum wage. My daily commute this month will me cost me less than $20. Somebody being paid minimum wage will pay $85 to take the bus to work in Victoria.
Today, I crossed the highway from work and was on a minibus in about three minutes. The interior was full, and I ended up in the front, arm out the window, watching to try and catch volcano Momotombo exploding.
Not today.
Postscript: Managua has a city bus system too, 12 cents with an electronic pass card, 25 cents if you're paying cash. My partner Jody Paterson wrote about her commute here.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Nothing like a boat disaster to help you think about risk

I've been thinking about my sense of travel risks since last week's boat disaster.
Pangas - heavy fibreglass open boats, generally with a couple of big outboards - run between Corn Island and Little Corn Island, off the Nicaraguan mainland in the Caribbean. The airport is on Corn Island, a lot of people want to stay on quieter Little Corn and the boats ferry people the 15 kms between the two.
A sometimes bumpy ride, as my writer friend Matt Jones describes here.
On Jan. 23, the winds had prevented sailings for at least a day, and tourists were getting impatient. A group of Costa Rican travellers stranded on Little Corn arranged a trip with Captain Hilario Blandón, who ended up with 32 passengers on board, plus his helper.
It went wrong. About five kms from Little Corn, three waves hit the boat. The first rocked it and all the passengers slid to one side, sending the boat into a dangerous list. A second wave dumped them in the water. A third flipped the boat.
Twenty-one people were rescued. Thirteen died.
After four years in Central America, I can easily imagine myself standing on the dock on Little Corn, impatient to head to to the next destination. Checking out the boat, deciding the captain knew what he was doing and climbing on board.
You get used to sketchy transportation options in poor countries. Crowded, beat-up buses with bald tires and texting drivers, or a four-hour ride on a plank seat in the open back of a truck. Perhaps too used to them.
Early in our time in Honduras, Cuso International was worried about security as the murder rate became the highest in the world. I helped with a survey of volunteers about their concerns.
Transportation was the big issue, not crime. Bad roads, poorly maintained vehicles, unreliable buses.
I've only been alarmed a few times by bus drivers who seemed to have crossed some line of basic sense.
But the boat disaster was a good reminder that you're responsible for your safety here.
The captain might not know what he's doing. The boat might not have enough life jackets or they might be homemade and useless, as they apparently were in this case.
The whole trip might be in defiance of safety warnings. (Some news stories have said the naval authorities had ordered boats not to sail; others say that's not true. The captain and helper have been charged with negligent homicide.)
The reality is that if you were super security conscious and paid attention to every warning you probably wouldn't leave your house.
I don't think we're reckless, but we do rely a lot on instinct when it comes to walking or taking a cab, leaping onto a jammed bus or waiting, or deciding whether to pay for a tour or accept the challenge of standing by a dark highway at night hoping a bus comes along.
But the boat disaster is a good reminder not to get too comfortable.
That happens. A Danish traveller almost had his backpack taken on a bus, until Nicaraguans warned him about the departing thief. We talked, and he said he had been on the road for almost two months. He never would have been so inattentive in his first few weeks, he said, but everything had gone so well.
I expect it's like that in assessing other risks too. Nothing goes wrong, so you are more inclined to leap from the dock into the boat. Which might explain how we ended up hitchhiking on a deserted road at dusk in Honduras, having counted on buses that didn't run in the late afternoon. Oh, and with grandchildren.
That turned out fine. We piled into the back of a suspiciously expensive truck and were back in town in about 45 minutes. You can, mostly, count on the kindness of strangers.
It's an interesting balance for travellers, or people living in a different country.
Not careful enough, and you might get hurt. Too careful, and you miss out on great experiences.
The disaster sent the Nicaraguan authorities into a belated boat safety campaign. They shut down the three main boats sailing to the island of Ometepe, a popular tourist destination in Lake Nicaragua - or Cocibolca, as it was named by indigenous people. It took two days for the owners to scrounge up life jackets and other safety equipment, as angry tourists and locals sat on the docks.
We took the boat to Ometepe last year. It seemed safe enough sitting in the sun on the top deck. But I didn't really think about how I'd get to a life jacket as we bounced through the waves.
Maybe next time I will.
But I'll still probably climb off the dock and on to the boat.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A tale of three newspapers: Nanaimo, Guelph and Kelowna. Two closed, one survives

The Guelph Mercury was selling about 9,000 papers in a metro area of 155,000 people. It closed.
The Nanaimo Daily News was selling about 5,000 papers in a market of about 100,000.
But the Kelowna Daily Courier, selling about 8,900 papers in a market of 180,000, survives.
What's different, besides the normal variations in markets?
In Guelph and Nanaimo, the same company owned both the daily newspaper and the community newspaper.
Metroland, a Toronto Star subsidiary, could close the Guelph Mercury knowing it would capture much of the ad revenue with its twice-weekly. Maybe even raise rates once the main print competitor was gone.
Black Press has the same control in Nanaimo, thanks to its deal to trade papers with Glacier Media a little over a year ago.
But in Kelowna, Black Press owns the three-times-a-week Capital News. David Radler owns the daily. And he shows no interest in closing it.
The future is bleak for daily newspapers in markets like these. In Nanaimo and Kelowna, the population has grown as people from away, as they say in Saint John, decided it was a good place to retire. They're not much interested in local news. (In fact, if they had a strong commitment to community, they wouldn't have picked up and left friends and family behind.)
But it's a lot bleaker when one owner has been able to eliminate competition between the community and daily newspapers.
The federal Competition Bureau has been useless in this area. It has primarily considered whether advertising rates will rise as a result of merger or acquisition. (Marc Edge looked at the Competition Bureau and newspapers in a Tyee piece.)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Ralph Sultan's very odd letter of instruction to Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant voters

Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant, when Ralph Sultan lived there
That's the only way I can describe MLA Ralph Sultan's letter on The Tyee website.
The Tyee published a piece on the Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant provincial byelection, profiling the candidates. The Liberal hopeful, Gavin Dew, didn't respond to interview requests. So no quotes from him. (Disorganized campaign? A strategic decision? Just one of those things? Who knows.)
Sultan was disappointed that his former campaign manager - Dew has been active in the BC Liberals and Vancouver´s NPA - wasn't in the article. Sultan wanted to help his campaign. So he wrote a letter, which The Tyee graciously published.
It might seem strange, he acknowledged, that the MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano was telling people in Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant how to vote. Sultan's riding is the wealthiest in B.C. - half the households have incomes over $100,000. Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant has the lowest incomes in the province - less than half the level of Sultan's constituents.
"What on earth would the sitting member for West Vancouver-Capilano (me) presume to say to the citizens of Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant?" Sultan asked in his letter.
A very good question.
Sultan says his roots are in the riding. He grew up there.
But a quick look at his bio confirms he lived in the riding in the 1930s and 1940s.  A lot has changed since then.
Sultan's letter says voters in the riding shouldn't worry about income assistance and disability rates that leave many of their neighbours in poverty. The Liberals are redeveloping St. Paul's Hospital and had a conference on the tech industry and Chinatown is doing well. They have done well on jobs and economic growth. (One of those things people probably judge based on their own experiences.)
I can't imagine how Sultan's intervention from the heights of West Van or the Liberal offices in the legislature will help Dew. Sultan is hardly a household name. His qualifications are impressive and frequently cited - Harvard PhD and professor, former chief economist for the Royal Bank, successful mining career.
But it's harder to point to highlights from his record as an MLA over the last 15 years. He was appointed to cabinet in 2012, and dropped nine months later.
Maybe there have been big contributions behind closed doors. But based on the public record, Sultan is  unlikely to sway many voters in Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant with tales of yore and recounting of generic party platform material.

Dew's campaign bio sets out his educational background in a way that suggests he followed in Sultan's footsteps at Harvard.
"He went on to complete an MBA at Oxford and study crisis management at Harvard," the bio says.
Except he only spend six days at Harvard, in a continuing education course, as Andrew MacLeod reports here.
It's hard to say if a six-day course really justifies the claim. I did a 10-day course at a fancy business school in France, but would feel like a fraud if I claimed I went on to "study management there."