Geopolitics

Latin America Needs New Deal With China, For The Planet's Sake

Pummeled by the pandemic, the fragile economies of Latin America are desperate to recover. But is turning to China for loans and as a market for raw materials the best long-term solution?

A small boat sailing on a river in Ecuador
Diana Castro Salgado

-Analysis-

QUITO — The coronavirus pandemic has impacted humanity and all its forms of economic, social and political organization. This is not just a global health crisis, but the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. And it's happening, furthermore, in one of the hottest years on record.

A year into the pandemic, Latin American countries are not just seeing more poverty, unemployment, insecurity, economic slowdowns and public spending gaps, but also some dire effects of climate change such as floods, droughts and deforestation, among others.

China is an important agent of this aggravated pollution, as its rapid growth over three decades has fueled demand for goods and services to meet its energy demands, provide food security and keep its industrial activity humming.

China's presence in Latin America has hastened environmental degradation.

China only has 7% of all arable lands and 6% of the world's water resources (ECLAC, 2017). Latin America, in contrast, has 24% of all forests and arable land, more than 30% of the world's water resources and extensive oil and mining resources (Isabel Studer, 2019).

Little wonder that China has had an increasingly marked presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in the last decade. That presence has come about through four channels tied to the extraction of raw materials and related industries: trade (based on exchanging raw materials for manufactures), investments (concentrated on extractive sectors like oil, mining, coal and big farming), financing (mostly conditional on payment with oil or use of Chinese firms), and construction of mega-infrastructures (often in environmentally fragile and socially vulnerable territories).

All these activities have hastened environmental degradation through increased pollution and overuse of water resources, deforestation and expansion of farming lands, exhaustion of non-renewable resources, threats to the survival of local communities, and the renewed dependence of Latin American economies on primary or raw materials.

A part of Peru's Amazonian forest devastated by illegal gold mining — Photo : Olivier Donnars

In 2020, measures taken by world governments to curb the spread of COVID-19 gave the planet a breather as fuel use, movement and industrial activity, and their emissions, slowed down. The lull was temporary, however, as large economies like China's are now focused on recovering their pre-pandemic production levels.

Meanwhile, vulnerable Latin American economies trying to revive their economies and meet public spending needs are turning to China for loans, or to renegotiate existing ones. That has meant shelving criticism of environmental problems that have emerged in the pandemic. Examples include the balsa wood frenzy in Amazonian lands, fed by growing Chinese demand (Águilar, 2021), and the presence of Chinese fishing fleets with dragnets in the territorial waters of Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina (GFW, 2020).

But this scenario is also an opportunity to consider the possibility of structural reforms so as to move on from the extractive and unsustainable model that governs Sino-Latin American relations. China's recovery and the renewed impulse given to the Belt and Road initiative will bring new financing packages, infrastructure projects and investments in coming years.

Regional countries are thus at a crossroads in their relations with China. They can keep extracting resources for China, which is the model that marks all aspects of their relations (trade, investment, loans and infracture) and incidentally curtails efforts to build inclusive and sustainable societies. Or they can revise the big economic and financial models that sustain their links and strive to reduce their climate footprints. At this juncture, when entire nations have clearly shown vulnerability to natural events, the second option seems more viable.

Protecting the environment means reflecting on areas like access to drinking water, electricity and food security.

The pandemic has also brought some big steps to defend the environment. In China's case, it made changes last year to its investment strategy with the publication of several, environmentally-minded financing and development guidelines. These include obligating all its banks to use classification mechanisms and filters for projects within the Belt and Road initiative. The aim is to make environmental sustainability a decision-taking criterion in financing projects, both in China and abroad (Sálazar, 2021).

We may add to these the rise of several civic and environmental groups in China that have opened a dialogue with banks and firms.

In Latin America, the Escazú Accord, which regulates people's right to access environmental information and seek environmental justice, recently entered into force as a long-awaited pact to fortify regional environmental governance. It is also an important framework for the development of ties with China.

There are also innovative proposals like debt exchange for natural habitats (biodiversity finance), which China, as one of the world's main creditors, can consider with Latin American states. They can provide it with attractive opportunities to assert itself in the fields of climate and environment, while relieving part of the debt burden weighing on regional states.

Protecting the environment has become essential, and it means reflecting on areas like access to drinking water, electricity and food security. These and other areas are key to assuring a sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic, in a world where more than half of all GDP depends on nature. (F4B, 2020).



*Diana Castro Salgado is a lecturer at Ecuador's Andina Simón Bolivar university.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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