Blog / 28 mei 2020

South American organisations are pushing back their boundaries

The Rio de la Plata Basin in South America extends across Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The livelihoods of the millions of people who live there – city-dwellers, small farmers and fishers, and indigenous peoples – are under pressure from soya cultivation, mining and logging, and by the construction of dams and ports. The COVID-19 crisis is making the situation even worse.

Local nature and human rights organisations are proving indispensable in some countries now that governments are failing to respond effectively to the crisis. The humanitarian aid that these organisations offer remote communities is often the only support they receive.

The countries in the La Plata basin have different ways of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. In Argentina and Paraguay, the governments responded quickly and seem to have the outbreak reasonably under control. In Bolivia, the reaction reflects the chaotic political situation caused by the sudden departure of president Evo Morales. In Santa Cruz, the epicentre of the outbreak and the economic centre of the country, the situation is out of control and the weak health system is in danger of collapsing.

The situation in Brazil is alarming, to say the least; the newspapers report daily on the rapidly rising number of deaths. President Bolsonaro is playing down the severity of the pandemic and is the only world leader, besides the dictators of Turkmenistan and Belarus, who denies that threat it poses. Organisations in the state of Mato Grosso, where the virus is spreading freely despite the low population density, say that people are living in fear of their lives. In remote areas like this, the rules are completely unclear because local and central governments are sending out conflicting messages.

In spite of the varying approaches, there is one painful similarity between these countries: COVID-19 is exacerbating social differences. Throughout the whole region of the basin, the crisis is hitting the poor the hardest. They work in the informal sector and cannot work from home. Remote communities very quickly had no access to basic services like water and health care, and have seen their food reserves dwindling quickly. Hunger made itself felt after only two weeks of lockdown. In some areas, the government provides a basic living benefit but, for people in remote communities it costs them as much to travel to the city and collect the benefit as the amount of the benefit itself.

In the meantime, governments continue to invest in projects that further erode the living environments of many of these people: upstream in the Pantanal wetland area, the construction of small dams continues unabated, as does the construction and expansion of controversial ports. That earlier led to resistance from local people, but now that they are preoccupied fulfilling their basic daily needs, governments seem to have a free hand.

Civil society organisations, cooperatives and women's groups are doing what they can to alleviate need. Hugo Olmedo of CODES in Paraguay tells us how the organisation's telephones have been red hot since the start of the lockdown. People are confined in remote areas and do not know what to do to survive. CODES has provided thousands of local communities with food, sanitation, new seed for their gardens and information on the outbreak.

In Brazil, too, civil society organisations have responded quickly. the 'Rede Pantaneiros' – a network of leaders from various communities in the Pantanal – are providing water, food and information.

This crisis is clearly illustrating the importance of flexible organisations that are close to local communities, especially in countries where government policy is not responding adequately to acute crisis. They are able to provide support more quickly and effectively than the government or international organisations. They are also very aware that not only short term aid is required, but that investments need to be made in sustainable and local food production to make local communities more self-sufficient.

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