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Making Wind Energy with Venezuelan Horsepower

Steven Schwartz, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

In the arid peninsula of La Guajira, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, wind energy is experiencing an unprecedented boom. Since the early 2010s, over a dozen corporations have been in the process of licensing up to 57 wind farms, valued collectively at over US$6 billion (González Posso and Barney 2019, 18, 28). In the coming years, thousands of turbines are expected to appear in the constitutionally protected territory of the Wayúu—the largest indigenous people in Colombia and Venezuela. The strong and steady trade winds that traverse this indigenous land are capable of fulfilling Colombia’s national electricity demand (UPME 2015). During 2018–2019, I conducted ethnographic research among Wayúu communities and wind energy corporations venturing in La Guajira to learn how low-carbon energy regimes are reshaping people’s everyday lives, economic horizons, and imagined futures.

Fig 1. Department of La Guajira, Colombia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One overlooked aspect of the renewable energy boom is the dozens of vehicles that keep the flow of workers, goods, and equipment for current and future wind farms. The cars, driven almost exclusively by men, are critical for visiting prospective Wayúu hosts, carrying out community workshops and consultation meetings, and marking points on the GPS for future maps. The preferred vehicles are Toyota SUVs—4Runners and Fortuners—which are viewed as capable of navigating the rugged, unpaved, and heavily eroded roads of the rural peninsula without breaking down. Their air-conditioned and musicalized interiors (with non-stop Vallenato tunes) insulate staff workers from the extreme heat, the dusty wind gusts, and the bodily pain of long and bumpy rides. The nascent wind energy economy is intimately dependent on these cars: they are “unlikely nonhuman collaborators in the development of renewable energy” (Howe 2019, 74).

Toyotas embody the promise of prosperity, development, and the good life that is commonly attached to wind energy in Colombia. In fact, owning and driving a car for a wind energy company is a key source of income for many Wayúu and non-indigenous guajiros (as rental fees can go as high as US$135 per day). However, for NGOs, journalists, and indigenous leaders that are skeptical of the wind energy boom, the cars portend a wave of conflicts and territorial dislocations: they are a fossil-fuel technology aiding a novel form of energy extraction with potentially violent effects.

The extractive imaginary surrounding Toyota SUVs was vividly captured in a newspaper ad I came across by chance while reviewing old editions of Wayuunaiki—a bilingual monthly newspaper published in Venezuela aimed at a Wayúu readership. The ad, published in the early 2000s, had an image of a Toyota 4Runner and the phrase: “How far would Christopher Columbus have gone if he had had a Toyota? Till the end of the world, because Toyota is the most comfortable and resistant vehicle on the market.” A few weeks later, I heard the postcolonial version of this ad on a morning radio show broadcast from Riohacha, where Christopher Columbus had been replaced by Simón Bolívar—who led Colombia’s independence from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century. Both iterations capture the ambivalent nature of these cars: while they crystallize rousing economic possibilities, they also evoke foreign and colonial actors that have arrived to capture a natural resource.

Fig. 2. Toyota Ad. Source: Wayuunaiki.

Yet, the Toyotas moving across the peninsula have another layer of ambiguity surrounding their identity. About 70 percent of all cars in La Guajira are Venezuelan (Benjumea Brito 2006), which is visible in their license plates—distinguishable by their white background and blue letters, the Venezuelan flag, and the Venezuelan states from which they originate. Most, if not all, of these cars also have a dark past: they were either stolen in Venezuela, or fraudulently reported as stolen to insurance companies, and then resold in the Colombian black market. The appeal of these vehicles is mainly their price. They can cost between 10 and 30 percent of the market price of a Colombian car (thereby making cars with Colombian license plates a sign of distinction). For this reason, the Colombian Guajira is filled with all kinds of Venezuelan vehicles, from motorcycles and old Ford-350 pick-up trucks to Toyota 4Runners and Fortuners.

Fig. 3. A Venezuelan Fortuner on the side of the road from Uribia to the Upper Guajira.

Most of these cars live relatively undisturbed due to a peculiar legal exception. Per numerous regional decrees, starting in 2003, these vehicles can go through a bureaucratic process—called interning or internación—after which they can move around legally, but only within the department of La Guajira. If they leave for the interior of Colombia, the cars will be detained. Ironically, they cannot circulate in Venezuela either, since owners fear that if they cross the border the police can easily confiscate the cars (since they remain reported as stolen). Neither fully Venezuelan nor Colombian. These are authentically guajiro cars that occupy a liminal space.

Since the 2000s, state governments in La Guajira have periodically attempted to legalize all Venezuelan cars, through the interning processes, yet new cars keep arriving. At several times in the past, they have also announced measures to eliminate their legal immunity to curtail the binational black market of stolen vehicles. Yet, these actions have been temporary and have almost always been met by protests (e.g., El Tiempo 1993, 1995). Interned cars are such an essential part of the social fabric of La Guajira that blocking their movements disrupts the entire region: it keeps children from going to school, people from going to work or to the doctor, tourists from reaching hostels, and kin and friends from visiting each other. Mobility in La Guajira is deeply intertwined with Venezuelan cars.

Interned cars are emblematic of the binational dynamics that have come to define La Guajira. They reflect the long and rich history of illicit flows that flourished since colonial times, from the smuggling of pearls and cattle to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century (Polo Acuña 2012) to the recent bonanza of marijuana (Britto 2020) and gasoline (Orsini Aarón 2007). The cars are both licit and somewhat illegal, periodically persecuted by state regulatory agencies, and yet a pillar of people’s mobility and social life. These cars also disclose the lurking and unexpected presence of Venezuela’s petro-state in fueling Colombia’s transition to a low-carbon energy future. In fact, most of them run on subsidized Venezuelan gasoline that has been smuggled across the border and sold in small plastic containers (see Fig 4). Subsidized Venezuelan gasoline provides up to 90 percent of the demand in the Colombian Guajira, powering many of the vehicles used to license, assemble, and maintain wind farms. Together, Venezuelan cars and gasoline demonstrate the “dim line between fossil-fueled modes of modernity and non-carbon-based forms of power” (Howe 2019, 75). They also suggest that Colombian wind farms are, perhaps inadvertently, a binational undertaking.

Fig. 4. Venezuelan Gasoline sold in Coca-Cola containers (called pimpinas) at the Jepirachi Wind Farm of Empresas Públicas de Medellín. Source: Photo by author.

Benjumea Brito, Paola, “En La Guajira 7 de cada 10 carros son robados,” El Tiempo, April 6, 2006,

Britto, Lina. 2020. Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

El Tiempo, “Controlarán carros venezolanos,” September 23, 1993,

El Tiempo, “Dueños de vehículos venezolanos tomaron ayer las calles de Maicao,” May 26, 1995,

González Posso, Camilo, and Joanna Barney. 2019. El viento del este llega con revoluciones. Multinacionales y transición con energía eólica en territorio Wayúu. Bogotá: Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz.

Howe, Cymene. 2019. Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Orsini Aarón, Giangina. 2007. Poligamia y contrabando. Nociones de legalidad y legitimidad en la frontera guajira siglo XX. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes.

Polo Acuña, José Trinidad. 2012. Indígenas, poderes y mediaciones en la Guajira en la transición de la colonia a la república. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes.

Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética. 2015. Plan energético nacional Colombia: ideario energético 2050. Bogotá: Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética.

Land and Water: The Property Dilemma Underlying Mexico City’s Water Crisis

Jack Mensik, MA Student, LACS

“This is the water!” Elena exclaimed. She scurried back to the living room from the kitchen and excitedly set the glass down on the table in front of me.

“Wow, it looks pretty clean,” I responded. I was not exaggerating. Specks of distant sunlight shimmered in the translucent water, whose unblemished appearance belied the fact that it had been collected from rainfall in a city notorious for its air pollution. For the past few years, Elena and her husband, Antonio, have relied on a household rainwater harvesting system to meet a substantial portion of their family’s water needs. Isla Urbana, an organization dedicated to the proliferation of rainwater harvesting in Mexico City, designed and installed this system, which captures water from Elena and Antonio’s roof, passes it through a series of filters, and stores it in a 5000-liter plastic cistern in their backyard. In their kitchen, another set of filters purifies the water to a quality suitable for drinking. They’ve done tests, Elena told me, and the quality is consistently excellent.


Figure 1. A household rainwater harvesting system that serves as an important source of clean water for residents of Mexico City’s periphery.


In truth, the clean water contained in the glass offers Elena and Antonio more than just good health. It affords them the possibility for a stable livelihood amidst circumstances in which they enjoy only marginal access to the rights and privileges promised to citizens of North America’s largest city. Reliance on the rain has meant that the family is no longer at the mercy of a government that is unsure of whether their household is deserving of piped water service. Yet, as Elena beamed with pride over the immaculate glass, I also wondered whether this newfound stability would make their otherwise rightless status more tolerable. After all, why would the family bother to seek legal recognition from government authorities if a public service like water was no longer urgently needed?

Elena and Antonio’s lack of formal land tenure explains how they discovered rainwater harvesting, and why they are so enthusiastic about it. The family’s home sits in a rolling mountain valley on the southern periphery of Mexico City within the city’s “ecological zone”, a conservation area in which human habitation is prohibited. Elena, Antonio, and their young children settled the unoccupied piece of land without legal sanction in the early 2010s. The growing family had become too big for their small house in San Gregorio Atlapulco, an urbanized area located a few miles away in the borough of Xochimilco. They had to build a home from scratch on the mountainside, but they found relief from the cramped conditions in which they had been living. Yet, because they had illegally occupied their land, they were ineligible for almost all government services. Elena and Antonio felt the absence of piped water most acutely. They narrowly missed an opportunity to enroll in a municipal program that would have offered them a monthly delivery from water trucks (locally known as pipas) at a subsidized cost. Meanwhile, the full cost of a monthly pipa delivery was more than they could afford on a regular basis. So, they would make trips down to a pump in San Gregorio, fill up a half-dozen or so 19-liter jugs with water, and either hire a taxi to bring them home or haul the jugs back uphill themselves in a cart. It was tiresome work, but unless the city government redesignated their community’s land tenure status as part of the “urban zone”, rather than the “ecological zone”, avenues for improvement remained limited.


Figure 2. An example of a pipa, or water tanker truck, that delivers water to many of Mexico City’s residents.


Elena and Antonio’s decision to seek a better life on Mexico City’s geographic and legal periphery repeats a logic that has been commonplace in the city for nearly a century. Since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, inner-city residents have looked to the city’s periphery as a place where single-family home ownership could be realized, far from predatory landlords, burdensome rents, and squalid living conditions. Meanwhile, since the end of the Second World War, informal settlements on the periphery have also absorbed influxes of rural migrants seeking economic opportunities in the national capital. Over time, many informal communities have received legal recognition from the state, and have been integrated into the city through the extension of public services. These patterns of migration, settlement, and eventual legalization have played a key role in the Mexico City’s rapid expansion from a contained city of 369,000 in 1900 to a sprawling megalopolis of over 20 million today.[1]

Yet, city and municipal governments are often hesitant to recognize informal settlements. In decades past, officials marshaled concerns about sanitation as a justification. Today, environmental considerations, specifically those surrounding water, occupy a central role in government discourse. The vast majority of the “ecological zone” occupies territory in the southern portion of Mexico City comprised of rural towns, farms, and mountain forest. The area’s vegetation plays a vital role in absorbing rainfall and recharging the subterranean aquifer upon which the metropolis depends for its water supply. Authorities are concerned that unrestricted settlement will lead to urban sprawl and loss of this important green space. [2] These apprehensions are justified, as the future of Mexico City’s water supply looks bleak. Decades of intensive extraction to quench the city’s thirst, coupled with miles of paved surfaces that prevent replenishment, have severely diminished water levels in the aquifer. In fact, this drop has caused parts of Mexico City to physically subside—the sight of uneven streets or buildings tilted at alarming angles are fairly common. Aqueducts that supplement the city with water from neighboring states are inefficient and costly.[3] Indeed, Mexico City is running out of water, and years of unsustainable growth have threatened the city’s survival.


Figure 3. The “ecological zone” found prominently in southern Mexico City in which vegetation plays a vital role in absorbing rainfall and recharging the subterranean aquifer.


However, the city’s vigilance over the aquifer also means that residents living in hundreds of informal settlements within the “ecological zone” are unlikely to receive the adjusted land tenure that will be necessary for basic improvements in water services and infrastructure. “It puts us in a dilemma,” one municipal official told me, “because on one hand, [water] is a right that everyone has. But by beginning to recognize these irregular communities, then what becomes of the conservation of natural land? Yes, [water] is a right, we cannot deny it. But also, there are certain limits that we cannot exceed through our actions.”[4]

Isla Urbana’s rainwater harvesting systems offer one solution to this dilemma, as the contraptions can expand water access without placing additional stress on the aquifer. “Rainwater harvesting gives you a tool that you can select exactly the houses or neighborhoods that are most problematic, or for any reason the city has failed to supply adequately,” explained the organization’s founder, Enrique Lomnitz. If these water stressed areas are supplemented with rainwater, he reasoned, it would reduce the burden on Mexico City’s water supply and infrastructure.[5]

Most of Isla Urbana’s work consists of government-sponsored programs, in which they install rainwater harvesting systems in formally recognized communities where water infrastructure performs poorly. Yet, through private donations, Isla Urbana is also able to service informal communities, many of which are in the “ecological zone.”[6] After connecting with Isla Urbana through mutual acquaintances, Elena and Antonio rounded up enough interested neighbors to begin a project of their own. The couple had to pay 3050 pesos (about $150 US dollars) to cover part of the cost of their own system, but they began harvesting rain shortly after its installation.

So far, Elena and Antonio are thrilled with the results. During Mexico City’s rainy season, roughly between June and October, powerful rains fill their cistern up with water that lasts into the dry season, meaning they save money they spent on pipas and time they spent on trips to the water pump. In the coming years, the couple hopes to expand their storage capacity so that their supply will last even longer. “To this day, we don’t suffer from water,” Antonio declared, “The system is very good and it has helped us a lot.”[7]

While rainwater harvesting has brought greater stability and comfort, the couple still expressed a desire for legal land tenure and improved infrastructure. They would like to see some form of piped water service, or at least more pipa trucks. “We all have rights to these things,” Elena argued, “Just as we have a right to light, we have a right to water. We have rights to urban services. And just because we live up here doesn’t mean we have no rights. We have the same rights as those who live down [in the city].”[8]

I sensed a gap, however, between Elena and Antonio’s belief that they had these rights and their ability to live without them. Previously, I had spoken with numerous residents of formally recognized communities, most of whom saw rainwater harvesting as more of a temporary fix that could never truly substitute for efficient piped water service. Elena and Antonio, on the other hand, seemed committed to rainwater harvesting for the long-term and relatively unfazed by the improbability of infrastructural improvement in their community. When I asked them why, they stated that they were concerned about the dwindling aquifer, and felt that rainwater harvesting and water conservation were essential steps for a better future. Even if their land tenure changed and services arrived, they said, they would continue to harvest rainwater. “We have [rainwater harvesting], it has helped us a ton,” Elena explained, “But yes, if piped water came, then that too. But also…as we said before we have to be conscious, right? Although we have piped water, save it, right? Take care of it.”[9]

Residents of other informal settlements echoed Elena and Antonio’s enthusiasm for rainwater harvesting, as well as their ambivalence toward legal land tenure and improved service. “I am doing very well with rainwater harvesting. I’d neither ask nor demand much else,” one woman told me, “If they come to tell us, ‘Guess what? They’re going to install pipes,’ I’d say, ‘Well, That’s fine. That’s good, isn’t it?’ But if not, then no. Because…with the rainwater harvesting system, well, the truth is that I’m fine.”[10]

Others expressed a similar dedication to rainwater harvesting on account of environmental concerns. “Sure, I would like to see it regularized,” one man said, “but I will keep collecting rainwater. Yes, I would keep doing it. Why? Because this way I am helping out the environment a bit, I’d say. Because sometimes you talk and you don’t do much…”[11]

These comments reveal the extent to which Mexico City’s water crisis is not simply an environmental issue, but cuts to the core of the city’s longstanding struggle with social inequality. Rainwater harvesting appears to do an excellent job of meeting informal residents’ water needs, and provides them with a greater sense of security that they can remain in their homes for the immediate future. Yet, the systems do not resolve critical legal issues surrounding land tenure in informal settlements that would establish permanent residence. Residents’ ambivalence toward resolving these issues may simply reflect doubt that their day of recognition will ever come. Their passion for rainwater harvesting is inspiring, but laden with resignation toward a tolerable, but rightless, livelihood on the periphery.

Both authorities and residents of Mexico City care deeply about their city’s environmental future. However, reaching a sustainable solution to an increasingly dire water crisis will require reckoning with difficult questions about what it means to be a full citizen of Mexico City and who can acquire this status. Until then, every raindrop that falls in the Valley of Mexico will be worth saving.



[1] Matthew Vitz, City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 4, 89-92; Thomas Benjamin, “Rebuilding the Nation,” in The Oxford History of Mexico, ed. William H. Beezley and Michael C. Meyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 470; Wayne Cornelius, Politics and the Migrant Poor in Mexico City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975), 16-17, 27-28.

[2] Jill Wigle, “The ‘Graying’ of ‘Green’ Zones: Spatial Governance and Irregular Settlement in Xochimilco, Mexico City: Irregular Settlement in Xochimilco, Mexico City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38, no. 2 (March 2014): 573–89,

[3] Barkin, David. 2004. “Mexico City’s Water Crisis.” NACLA Report on the Americas 38, no. 1: 24-28.; Connolly, Patricia. 1999. “Mexico City: Our Common Future?” Environment and Urbanization 11, no. 1 (April): 53-78.; Kahn, Carrie. “Mexico City Goes Days Without Water During Maintenance Shutdown.” NPR.Org. Accessed November 10, 2018.

[4] Interview, August 27, 2018.

[5] Interview, August 14, 2018.

[6] Interview, August 14, 2018.

[7] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[8] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[9] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[10] Interview, August 22, 2018.

[11] Interview, August 15, 2018.

Following the Chocolate Trail: Cacao in the Amazon and the Origins of a Popular Confection

Kerry LePain, LACS MA’17

Figure 1: The Transamazon Highway at the crossroads of rainforest, ranching, agriculture, and regrowth

Where does our food come from? I immediately think of two ways to answer this question – one in the sense of where the food was grown, and another farther off response concerning where a specific foodstuff or plant originated. It was this second question that brought me bumping down an ocher, dusty road on a motorcycle, arms wrapped around the waist of Seu Pedro, a proud grandfather and pioneering farmer to the Transamazon Highway region in the Brazilian State of Pará, as he took me on a show-and-tell trip through his cacao forests, locally known in Medicilândia for their distinctive cabruca agroforestry configuration.

Figure 2: A rich red earth side road leads toward Seu Pedro’s agroforestry plots and a towering skyline of rainforest trees.

While much of the margins along the Transamazon Highway are lined with sweeping expanses of electric green pasture, palms, and equally garish red earth, our trip along a northern side road led through increasingly towering and lush vegetation. Bright yellow piles of recently harvested cacao pods lay in piles, dappled by green light filtering down through the boughs of the surrounding cacao trees. Following Seu Pedro as we now walked through the forest, he gestured toward the crunching leaves underfoot—natural fertilizer from cacao and larger trees that served as a breeding ground for cacao’s main pollinators—and to massive fallen bromeliads that recently tumbled from the crown of a Brazil Nut Tree about one hundred feet above.

Figure 3: A scene from the cabruca agroforestry patch, as collected cacao is piled atop leaves beneath the rainforest trees.

Pedro’s cacao agroforestry belongs to a larger regional history intricately interwoven with the environment and is part of a growing drive to work with(in) the Amazon’s native vegetation and ecosystems. Brazil’s 2012 Forest Code requires that agricultural properties maintain an area of native vegetation as “Legal Reserve” corresponding to quotas established on a regional basis. At least on paper, landholdings within the “Legal Amazon” should reserve 80% of their total area as a forest preserve. As an answer to the question of environmental origin, cacao occupies a privileged place within Amazonian agriculture under the Forest Code. Cacao is native to the Amazon, and cacao trees count as reforestation and count toward the native vegetation “Legal Reserve” quota. Medicilândia, a municipality at Kilometer 90 of the Transamazon Highway largely blessed with rich soil, has leaned heavily into cacao agriculture, earning the reputation of Brazil’s “Cacao Capital,” while other neighboring communities have followed suit in attempts at prosperity and a rewrite of the Transamazon’s failed agriculture narrative.

Brazil’s military regime began construction of the Transamazon Highway in the early 1970s as part of a large-scale agro-colonization scheme designed to alleviate land crunches and leftist worries elsewhere in the nation, occupy the vast “empty” Amazon interior, and create a new Brazilian breadbasket. Much attention was focused on the modernization of the Amazon—long perceived as decadent, folkloric, and lackadaisical—but little planning attention went toward understanding the micro-regional specificities of a greater region that covers roughly 30% of South America’s total area. Erroneously viewed as one big forest, the Amazon is a conjunction of highly diverse—and diverging—forests, rivers, climates, and soil types, constituting a variety of ecosystems and agricultural potentials. When limited preliminary soil analyses along the Transamazon Highway around Medicilândia indicated rich soil, these results were extrapolated as representative of the entire region, and used as justification for agricultural projects without properly taking into account climactic variation, potential pests and diseases, and the possibility of soil inconsistency. The military regime and its colonization agency, INCRA, recruited large numbers of colonists from the South and Northeast and incentivized waves of commodities because they grew well elsewhere in Brazil. Medicilândia’s farmers tried their hands with rice, beans, black pepper, tomatoes, guaraná, coffee, and sugarcane, but their efforts were frustrated by heavy rains, hungry animals, diseases, and patchy soil conditions. The dirt roads frequently washed out following heavy Amazonian rains, and construction on the gargantuan network of planned roads could not keep pace with demand and stalled out after 1974 when the government prematurely classified the entire colonization project as a failure and largely left agricultural colonists in the Amazon, Brazil’s Wild West of sorts, to their own devices.

Distinctly wild cacao trees grow throughout the forests surrounding Medicilândia, but it was in the late 1970s that several colonists from the State of Bahia, historically associated with cacao agriculture, planted Medicilândia’s first commercial cacao groves. Elisangela Trzeciak—a regional government representative, member of a nascent cacao cooperative, and a daughter raised between ranching and cacao agriculture—claimed that cacao used to fetch a price equal to a kilogram of meat, an important benchmark as the trees fell and the Transamazon region increasingly gave way to cattle ranching. As with other previous commodities, Medicilândia’s cacao farmers have confronted obstacles to their success with cacao: at home in the Amazon, cacao is subject to indigenous pests, and prices have at times plummeted so low that some farmers took to cutting their cacao groves and abandoning their investments. By and large, however, Medicilândia’s cacao has been highly productive in comparison to other Brazilian regions and has allowed farmers with smaller plots of land to earn livable incomes that would be impossible with cattle. With groves of cacao trees, farmers are able to maintain gardens alongside and, in some cases, among the trees, supplementing their income and providing additional food for the families. Because cacao naturally grows as an understory tree, beneath the Amazon’s vaulted canopy, cacao naturally lends itself to agroforestry initiatives like Seu Pedro’s cabruca plots, where cacao trees are mixed among native vegetation, remaining hardwoods from before the plot was cleared, and new palms, hardwoods, and vines that have returned, making Seu Pedro’s plot a commercially productive interpretation of the regional forest ecosystem.

Figure 4: A young Brazil Nut Tree already towers above a farmer’s cacao patches.

It is in large part because of this “re-agro-forestation” potential that cacao has increasingly garnered attention within the Amazon, however the environmental services provided by properly managed cacao agroforestry plots and the farmers who work them underscore problems in the ways we purchase and know our food. Fair trade and organic agriculture receive attention as ethical choices available to consumers and as more equitable, environmentally sound means for growers to sell their products. Ivan Dantas came to the Medicilândia region as a young boy with his family with the onset of colonization and has been awarded prizes at Paris’ International Chocolate Fair (Salon du Chocolat) for the quality of his cacao beans. He is a staunch advocate for environmental stewardship of the forest, which he calls his “paradise,” but he also laments the local infeasibility and high cost of organic agriculture. Although the majority of cacao grown in the region is de facto organic, organic certification requires farmers to follow strict sets of regulations, to use specially designated fertilizers, and to front the cost of pricey inspections and certifications. Ivan explained that farmers within the Medicilândia region had inconsistent access to the organic fertilizers necessary for productive cacao, and due to falling yields and exhausted soil, he explained that he was leaving the town’s organic cooperative.

Figure 5: Seu Ivan’s prize winning fermented cacao beans are spread out to dry.

Throughout my time with Medicilândia’s cacao growers, their stories called into question the sufficiency of existing certifications, and the necessity of more comprehensive ways of differentiating products, educating and informing consumers, and justly compensating higher quality cacao and the environmental services that accompany it. Seu Pedro’s cabruca agroforestry cacao, for example, comprises a far greater effort and renders a much larger service than either organic or shade-grown agriculture. His trees are shaded in rehabilitated forest, designed to replicate as best possible the Amazon’s native vegetation while still permitting cacao agriculture. Because an accurate certification and label does not exist, Pedro’s cacao is sold alongside conventional, full sun cacao beans grown on deforested land and he receives no larger monetary return, despite the substantial investment required to restore the forest. While Pedro’s cacao and pocketbook can benefit from increased productivity, pollination, and soil fertility as a result of the restored forest, farmers such as Pedro could stand to benefit a great deal more if their environmental services were labeled, marketed, recognized, and sold.

Figure 6: Seu Pedro beside a large rainforest hardwood planted in his cabruca agroforestry patch

Stepping away from my research in the Amazon, I see the problem come full circle, returning to the question of our food’s origins. While consumers may appreciate picturesque nature photos adorning an organic bar of chocolate or a packet of coffee, they are able to abstract themselves from the realities of labor and production wrapped up in the package. The fundamental problem with these certifications, their fairness, and their value to farmers is that they come with a choice. Save money today, or reward a distant farmer with higher wages? Save money today, or compensate a farmer somewhere for an environmental service? In this sense, justice becomes the prerogative of the consumer, and not the right of the farmers. The burden of the origin of food, how it is made, and caring for the environment that supports it falls to farmers, whereas consumers have the right to choose to not understand their food.






On the Current Brazilian Housing Program

By Marcella de Araujo Silva I  Visiting Brazilian PhD student at CLAS

In 2009, the Brazilian government announced the creation of a new housing program. After a three-decade gap in public policy, Minha Casa Minha Vida (My Home My Life) promised the greatest provision of housing funding for historically marginalized populations. Families whose monthly income was up to R$5000 (around US$1200) could finally apply for different types of grants according to their income brackets. They are three: bracket one comprising families whose incomes vary between R$0 and R$1600; bracket two, R$1601–R$3275; and bracket three, R$3275–R$5000. Bracket one is also known as the “social interest bracket” and subsidies go up to 95% of housing cost.

The social dimension of such a program is better understood if we take into account the depth of the Brazilian housing deficit. According to Fundação João Pinheiro’s national statistics, there is a lack of 7 million housing units nationwide. The numbers are even worse if we consider living standards such as urban infrastructure, house densification, inadequate shelter, inadequate landing, and bathroom-less houses. Ninety percent of the Brazilian housing deficit—either quantitative or qualitative—involves the poorest families whose meager earnings do not exceed R$1600 (approx. US$400) monthly (1).

Despite its undeniable social purpose, Minha Casa Minha Vida was also created with an economic goal. The program was conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis as an anti-cyclical measure. On the one hand, the Brazilian government would finance building contractors, expanding the market and creating thousands of jobs. According to the president of Câmara Brasileira de Construção Civil (Brazilian Chamber of Building Construction), by November 2014, there were 500,000 workers whose jobs were on Minha Casa Minha Vida building sites (2). In addition, the federal government would help millions of poor families’ dreams of owning a house come true, as Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil) repeatedly advertised on television. Financing production and granting consumption was for at least four years the class-conciliation strategy of economic growth with social redistribution fostered by the Partido dos Trabalhadores’ (Workers Party). Minha Casa Minha Vida promptly became the second most important social policy in the country, right after Bolsa Família, the government’s poverty eradication program.

Minha Casa Minha Vida Popular.jpgMinha Casa Minha Vida popular condominium in Colônia Juliano Moreira, Jacarepaguá neighborhood, West Zone, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Samantha Gifalli.

Notwithstanding, since its release, social movements and urban researchers have scrutinized Minha Casa Minha Vida’s apparent success. Even though the program addresses an old social demand, its mode of production, the form and physical quality of the new apartment buildings, and its territorial and social effects are objects of criticism (3).

Among architects and urban planners, Minha Casa Minha Vida’s most criticized aspect is its institutional framework. Enrollment varies according to income bracket. For brackets two and three, the dynamics are exactly the same as any regular real estate market. The negative outcomes are predictable. Since there is more credit, apartment prices increase enormously, sometimes making it nearly impossible for families to afford a new house. Since 2008, skyrocketed rents—97% higher in São Paulo and 144% in Rio—have pushed families from central areas towards more distant ones. For the social interest bracket, the enrollment procedure is two-fold: families might enroll themselves or they might be registered by social workers, according to maps of natural disaster risk areas. The outcomes are highly controversial and conflicting: depending on risk areas’ geographical limits, higher-income families unwilling to leave their houses for tiny apartments are registered, and extremely poor families who have lost shelter and belongings countless times are not.

Bypassing Ministério das Cidades’ (Ministry of Cities) intersectorial perspective of housing, sewage, and urban mobility programs, Minha Casa Minha Vida does not address sustainable urban infrastructure. For instance, in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro alone, between 2010 and 2012, almost 100,000 apartments were built, most of them in areas with limited access to public transportation and bereft of urban and social facilities. Hence architects and urban planners perceive the program as a massive production of housing units, rather than urban planning.

Not only does the project consist of building great numbers of units, but it does so in highly concentrated spaces. In the city of Rio, 27,000 units are distributed among only 82 condominiums. Each of them is shaped as an enclave, with high security bars, controlled entrances, and inner recreational areas of poor quality—a housing type until now more common among upper classes gated communities. Once they are handed over to the new residents, they become private spaces, privately managed. The extra expenses caused by this privatization make the housing scheme unaffordable to social interest bracket families.

Finally, these popular condominiums are distributed across cities according to the income brackets they encompass. In Rio’s most valued areas—the South Zone, nearby downtown, and near North Zone—where urban land prices are higher, barely any Minha Casa Minha Vida housing can be found. However, in the West Zone, unfairly known as the hinterlands of the city, there is great concentration of low-income condominiums. Thus, two modes of segregation overlap: the center-periphery and the gated-community.

As we can see, the current Brazilian housing program is highly controversial and it poses important challenges to sociological inquiry. What roles do these apartments play in poor families’ economic strategies and housing trajectories? How are these popular condominiums inscribed in the urban fabric? What kind of city is under construction? Only good qualitative and ethnographic research can unfold these processes and shed light into how people are coping with their dilemmas.


(1) Fundação João Pinheiro (2012). Déficit habitacional no Brasil 2009 / Fundação João Pinheiro, Centro de Estatística e Informações. – Belo Horizonte.


(3) All recent publications on Minha Casa Minha Vida and other urban-related themes can be found on this website


Reflecting on CLAS Events: The New Bolivian Economy

By Hong R. Zhang Durandal, Masters in Public Policy student, Harris School of Public Policy


In April 2015, the Bolivian Minister of Economy and Finance Luis Arce Catacora came to the University of Chicago to present a new economic model that Bolivia has developed and put in practice since 2006. He explained the Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model and why it is effective in Bolivia. In this system, the state becomes the largest investor in the economy and it focuses on developing a strong domestic demand while strengthening the Bolivian currency.

Since the implementation of this economic system, the Bolivian economy has been growing constantly and it has reduced extreme poverty by more than 10%. Arce said, “Bolivia reduced extreme poverty from 32% to 18%, we would like to lower it to a similar rate as Ecuador which is only 12%.” At the same time he also mentioned that the unemployment rate declined from 8.5% to 4% and that this was one of the lowest in the region. There is no doubt that the Bolivian economy has strengthened since the implementation of this new economic system but it is unclear if this boom was solely due to the rise in price of raw materials or other factors. The system is still young compared to other more robust and well tested systems around the world. The exportation of natural resources still is the backbone of the Bolivian economy but with an emphasis on reinvesting in other industries, industrializing raw materials, and the redistribution of wealth among the ones that need it the most. Let’s explore the actual facts and what this new economic system has been able to do for the Bolivian people.

Among the most notable achievements of Evo Morales presidency under this new economic system have been: improvement of education availability in rural areas, creation of new infrastructure of parks and soccer fields, improvement of public transportation, and the launching of the first Bolivian satellite to bring free Internet to the most remote areas in the country. These high capital investments were possible due to the high prices of oil during the first five years of presidency of Evo Morales. Yasimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), the national oil extraction and producing agency, has been trying to increase its extraction of oil and expand into refining some types of oils to later export to neighboring countries like Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The most successful investment in transportation infrastructure has been the “teleferico” (cable car) system in the capital city La Paz. This infrastructure, which is the largest urban cable car in the world, connects more than 2 million people from two adjacent cities, La Paz and El Alto, and ascends to more than 16,500 feet. Previously a great number of people spent more than one third of their incomes and 2–3 hours commuting using various public transportation methods; with the teleferico commuters have cut their traveling time to 20 minutes from one city to the other. The system can transport 18,000 people per hour over 11 kilometers. The government has plans to develop more transportation infrastructures like metro trains for Santa Cruz and Cochabamba and other major cities.

The Morales administration has used extensively policies of cash transfers from profits from the teleferico, YPFB, and other government income to fund pensions for the elderly, school funds for children, breakfast funds, and the “Doble Aguinaldo.” Through this egalitarian approach the Bolivian government works extensively to close the inequality gap between the wealthy and the poor and achieve the most equal wellbeing and economic welfare among its citizens. With some programs the government has achieved great efficiencies like providing funds for children and the elderly. However, the system fails when it tries to apply this egalitarian approach to the entire Bolivian population. The private sector has been hurt because of the “Doble Aguinaldo,” which forces private business to pay a double bonus at the end of the year to all its employees. This translates to a triple salary payment for the month of December. Many businesses went bankrupt due to this egalitarian policy under Bolivia’s new economic model. As in any transfer policy, resources have to be taken from somewhere to be given to others. The Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model has great potential to reduce inequality in the country by making everyone almost equal in wealth and wellbeing, but is it the right path for an economic model that can sustain generations to come and solve 21st century economic global challenges?

To conclude, Minister Arce Catacora pointed out that Bolivia can develop to become one of the major energy players in Latin America through the industrialization of fossil fuels, exports of lithium, and the development of hydroelectric plans and renewable energy. Bolivia needs to capitalize its competitive advantage in its abundancy of energy resources and leverage them to create economic stability for years to come.

Minister Arce Catacora made a compelling case on his new economic system to many scholars and students at the University of Chicago but much more needs to be studied on the Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model to call it a successful reform. Bolivia has been able to reshape itself and come out of an era of decades of political instability, extreme poverty, and inequality. Scholarship and research from the University of Chicago can shed light of the merits and challenges of this new economic system. Thanks in part to the Center for Latin American Studies and the Harris School of Public Policy, the school has opened its doors to become the most diverse University in terms of ideas, discussions, and constructive debate.


Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.