Bolivia’s corrupt system failed to stem femicide. Now, feminists are fighting back | Women’s rights and gender equality
In parts of La Paz, every surface is papered with layers of bleached and peeling posters: adverts for events, jobs, apartments – and missing women.
In 2021, there were at least 108 femicides in Bolivia, among the highest rates in South America. Many of the perpetrators are either never caught, not punished or go free soon after.
In January, fresh outrage was prompted by the case of Richard Choque, a serial rapist and murderer who was given house arrest and then continued to commit crimes. The wave of fury prompted by the scandal has since driven Bolivia’s feminist collectives to spectacular measures in an effort to force government action against femicides – and the corrupt justice system that allows them.
It started with perhaps the biggest feminist protest seen in El Alto, the one-time satellite city that now flows into La Paz. The march began outside Choque’s house in El Alto and culminated at the courts of justice, where activists covered the walls with graffiti, red paint and the names of unpunished rapists and murderers.
“We wanted to redirect the discourse,” said María Galindo, founder of Mujeres Creando, a feminist collective in La Paz. “For it not to be a discourse of victimhood, nor a tabloid nor a police discourse. Because what Richard Choque shows is that the central problem is state corruption. This man was a prisoner, and yet he went free.”
Galindo has since proved the sharp point of the pressure campaign on the government.
She took to barging into state institutions and putting civil servants on the spot, livestreamed on social media. The one-liners she whipped them with went viral on TikTok. Then she teased a run to be Bolivia’s ombudsman – before tearing her application up in front of the cameras, in a typically flamboyant outfit of fishnet leggings, black eyeshadow and irreverent takes on patriotic symbols, not least a giant crown capped with an Andean condor.
Meanwhile, Mujeres Creando catalogued ignored reports of gender violence and investigated San Pedro prison, where Choque ought to have been held. They found a system of corruption, where inmates bought privileges including house arrest.
In response, the government set up a commission to re-evaluate cases like Choque’s, which, though extreme, was not unique. Twenty-one others released to house arrest inappropriately have since been reincarcerated, while another 50 arrest warrants have been issued. Eighteen judges are facing criminal proceedings and more than 300 of their cases are being re-evaluated.
Such numbers come as no surprise to activists in La Paz and El Alto where gender violence has been accentuated by two factors, said writer Quya Reyn. First, the absence of the state, which creates insecurity. And second, the fact that the city draws migrants – many of them young women – from across Bolivia’s western highlands.
These women are vulnerable to abuse. “If you go to [the centre], you’ll find posters looking for nannies, looking for women to work in restaurants,” said Reyna. “And they are always looking for women – only women.”
“You see this with Richard Choque,” Reyna added. “He would go on Facebook and say that he could offer work. These young women were murdered looking for work.”
In 2013, the government introduced Law 348, which, among other things, made femicide a crime punishable by 30 years in prison – Bolivia’s maximum sentence.
The law was welcomed as progressive legislation at the time, and Adriana Guzmán, a feminist activist based in El Alto, believes the text remains generally sound – the problem is implementation.
First, there is a lack of resources. “Right now, there aren’t enough judges, there aren’t enough prosecutors, there aren’t enough investigators.”
Then there’s corruption, as demonstrated by the case of Choque. “The entire justice system is corrupt – not just with regard to crimes against women.” Guzmán notes that this discriminates most against the poor.
There is some scepticism that the government’s commission will address these root problems.
Galindo, for one, views the commission as an attempt to deflate their pressure campaign. “It’s for the media. It’s a commission that serves to make declarations, not effective policies.”
Meanwhile Guzmán says that it was limited from the start, since it is only reviewing a fraction of gender violence cases. “For it to really be a historic commission, and not a ridiculous one – because it is ridiculous that the state has created a commission to return those to prison who should already be there – the commission needs to finish with a proposal to reform justice and the state.”
Among Bolivia’s feminists there are varying views on how that sort of reform will be achieved.
“The system has to be changed with huge social pressure,” said Galindo. “And we’re building a movement to achieve that.” She believes the campaign Mujeres Creando has led over the last months has strengthened their social legitimacy: “No one can buy us. We are incorruptible.”
But Guzmán is sceptical that this movement reaches much beyond the urban middle classes. And the true forces in Bolivia, says Guzmán, are the campesino and Indigenous organisations. “Within them, feminism isn’t a thing. There are lots of prejudices against feminism.”
In El Alto, meanwhile, Reyna pointed to the lack of feminists in politics pushing for reform. She believes change will come when a new, diverse generation of women enter government and shape it from within.
“I don’t want to fight the state,” said Reyna. “I want to be the state.”
As anti-gay sentiment grows, more LGBTQ+ people seek to flee Uganda | International
Pretty Peter flicked through frantic messages from friends at home in Uganda. The transgender woman is relatively safe in neighboring Kenya. Her friends feel threatened by the latest anti-gay legislation in Uganda prescribing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”
Frightened Ugandans are searching for a way to get out like Pretty Peter did. Some have stayed indoors since the law was signed on Monday, fearing that they’ll be targeted, she said.
“Right now, homophobes have received a validation from the government to attack people,” the 26-year-old said, standing in a room decorated with somber portraits from a global project called “Where Love is Illegal.”
“My friends have already seen a change of attitude among their neighbors and are working on obtaining papers and transport money to seek refuge in Kenya,” she said.
That’s challenging: One message to Pretty Peter read, “Me and the girls we want to come but things a(re) too hard.” Another said that just one person had transport, and some didn’t have passports.
Homosexuality has long been illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law criminalizing sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The punishment for that offense is life imprisonment. Pretty Peter, who wished to be identified by her chosen name out of concern for her safety, fled the country in 2019 after police arrested 150 people at a gay club and paraded them in front of the media before charging them with public nuisance.
The new law signed by President Yoweri Museveni had been widely condemned by rights activists and others abroad. The version signed did not criminalize those who identify as LGBT+, following an outcry over an earlier draft. Museveni had returned the bill to the national assembly in April asking for changes that would differentiate between identifying as LGBTQ+ and engaging in homosexual acts.
Still, the new law prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which is defined as cases of sexual relations involving people infected with HIV, as well as with minors and other categories of vulnerable people. A suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. And there’s a 20-year prison term for a suspect convicted of “promoting” homosexuality, a broad category affecting everyone from journalists to rights activists and campaigners.
After the law’s signing, U.S. President Joe Biden called the new law “a tragic violation of universal human rights.” The United Nations human rights office said it was “appalled.” A joint statement by the leaders of the U.N. AIDS program, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund said Uganda’s progress on its HIV response “is now in grave jeopardy,” as the law can obstruct health education and outreach.
While a legal challenge to the new law is mounted by activists and academics seeking to stop its enforcement, LGBTQ+ people in Uganda have been chilled by the growing anti-gay sentiment there.
The new law is the result of years of efforts by lawmakers, church leaders and others. Scores of university students on Wednesday marched to the parliamentary chambers in the capital, Kampala, to thank lawmakers for enacting the bill, underscoring the fervency of the bill’s supporters.
The new bill was introduced in the national assembly in February, days after the Church of England announced its decision to bless civil marriages of same-sex couples, outraging religious leaders in many African countries. Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries. Some Africans see it as behavior imported from abroad and not a sexual orientation.
The top Anglican cleric in Uganda, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, has publicly said he no longer recognizes the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual leader of the Anglican communion. In a statement issued after the bill was signed, Kaziimba spoke of “the diligent work” of lawmakers and the president in enacting the law.
However, he added that life imprisonment is preferable to death for the most serious homosexual offenses.
There were signs a new anti-gay bill was coming in late 2022. There had been widespread concern over reports of alleged sodomy in boarding schools. One mother at a prominent school accused a male teacher of sexually abusing her son.
Even some signs of solidarity or support with LGBTQ+ people have been seen as a threat.
In January, a tower in a children’s park in the city of Entebbe that had been painted in rainbow colors had to be reworked after residents said they were offended by what they saw as an LBTGQ+ connection. Mayor Fabrice Rulinda agreed, saying in a statement that authorities “need to curb any vices that would corrupt the minds of our children.”
In Kenya, Pretty Peter has watched the events closely.
“Ugandans have in recent days been fed with a lot of negativities towards the LGBT, and the government is trying to flex its muscles,” she said of the administration of the 78-year-old Museveni, who has held office since 1986 as one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.
Pretty Peter said Kenya, a relative haven in the region despite its criminalization of same-sex relationships, is not as safe as she and fellow LGBTQ+ exiles would like it to be. Still, Kenya hosts an estimated 1,000 LGBTQ+ refugees and is the only country in the region offering asylum based on sexual orientation, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
In a secluded safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi, a sense of threat remains.
“We’ve been evicted twice before because neighbors got uncomfortable and accused us of bringing bad values around their children. We also got attacked once at a club in Nairobi so one must really watch their backs,” Pretty Peter said.
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The multinational companies that industrialised the Amazon rainforest | Global development
A handful of global giants dominate the industrialisation of the Amazon rainforest, extracting tens of billions of dollars of raw materials every year, according to an analysis that highlights how much value is being sucked out of the region with relatively little going back in.
But even as the pace of deforestation hits record highs while standards of living in the Amazon are among the lowest in Brazil, the true scale of extraction remains unknown, with basic details about cattle ranching, logging and mining hard to establish despite efforts to ban commodities linked to its destruction.
From the world’s largest iron ore mine to a ranching industry that slaughters more than 6 million animals a year, the Guardian analysis – carried out as part of a joint project with Forbidden Stories to mark the anniversary of the killings of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips – shows how the world’s most biodiverse land is now also a home to industrial powerhouses. The firms are sources of economic growth and employment for the communities and for the country. But they are operating in an environment – the world’s largest rainforest and a critical carbon sink – that presents unusual challenges.
These companies’ commitments to Amazon restoration vary enormously. If their operations can be consolidated and made more transparent and accountable, they have the financial power to be part of the solution for the rainforest, rather than the problem – as some have been until now. This is essential because the degradation of the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, after which the forest will start to dry up and lose its globally important function as a climate regulator.
Using company records, financial data and scientific studies, the Guardian has tried to establish the value of goods that are commonly extracted from the Brazilian Amazon, including through gold, iron ore and bauxite mining, cattle ranching, soy farming, pulp production and the logging industry.
Mining and meat
In terms of revenue, one company stands head and shoulders above the others: since 2010, the Brazilian mining company Vale has extracted more than 4bn tonnes of iron ore from Carajás mine, in the state of Pará, worth $220bn (£176bn), according to the analysis.
Pará is also home to Alunorte, the biggest aluminium refinery outside China, generating about $15.3bn in revenue since 2014 for the Norwegian mining firm Norsk Hydro, which is part-owned by the Norwegian government.
Alcoa and MRN lag behind these vast numbers, but they too are realising large revenues. Alcoa, a Pittsburgh company that has only recently moved into the Amazon, does not release figures that are easily interpretable. MRN, a subsidiary of Vale, has produced bauxite ore worth $8.3bn since 2013 from its operation in Pará.
The mining sector, by far the most financially lucrative Amazon activity, includes many small firms, with more than $4.2bn of gold extracted between 2018 and 2022 by artisan producers, according to analysis of figures provided by Refinitiv, part of the London Stock Exchange Group. But the lion’s share goes to the big companies at the top.
Maurício Angelo, the founder of the Mining Observatory, notes that the area occupied by legal industrial mining in Brazil has grown sevenfold since 1985. He says this expansion brings huge environmental liabilities, including infrastructure (roads, hydroelectric plants, ports, railroads.) as well as the removal of traditional peoples, and the threat of disaster.
Overall, he says, the industry has never lived up to its claims of sustainability. “Mining did not deliver the development it promised and confined cities and entire regions to underdevelopment, with very low quality of life, few and precarious jobs, with huge environmental liabilities and almost no practical return for society.”
Vale says it is aware that as a company it has a responsibility to “contribute to socioeconomic development and establish relationships of respect and trust in the territories where it is present”. It says it has invested more than 1bn Brazilian reais (about $200m) over the last decade in protection, research, territorial development and cultural incentive actions in the Amazon.
The beef industry is far smaller than the mining sector in terms of economic value, though not in impact and footprint. Data is hard to find, but according to the Guardian’s analysis, cattle slaughtered in the Amazon by JBS were worth about $5bn in 2016 while they were still in Brazil, while JBS’s closest competitors, Minerva and Marfrig, processed about $600m and $1bn’s worth respectively. The value fell dramatically in 2022, largely because of exchange rate fluctuations, to $3.9bn for JBS, $547m for Minerva and $709m for Marfrig. But this is just the value of the beef coming out of the slaughterhouse; far more value will be added further along the complex supply chain, and by an overwhelming margin the economic value of this industry is being realised outside Brazil, on dinner plates at restaurants in Beijing and New York.
Paulo Barreto, senior researcher with the Brazilian research institute Imazon told the Guardian: “Although major beef supply companies, including meatpackers, supermarkets and financial institutions, have pledged to decouple from deforestation, the sector has not done all that it should.” He argued that the combination of irresponsible behaviour by some private companies with “the dismantling of public conservation and indigenous policies in the past four years led to a twofold increase in deforestation rates in the region compared to the previous ten years average.”
Ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions after land grabbing, with which it is often closely associated. By 2018, the Brazilian Amazon had lost 741,759 sq km (about 286,000 sq miles) of its original forest cover, mainly due to agricultural expansion. This accelerated during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, when forest clearance increased by 59.5%, the fastest rate since at least 1988. More than 2bn trees were cut or burned.
JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, has been urged to use its commercial strength to improve environmental and social governance in the Amazon. The last story by Phillips published in the Guardian was a report about a 65% increase in JBS profits in the last quarter of 2020. The story quoted Mauro Armelin, of Friends of the Earth, observing that the results meant the firm had “plenty of money to spend in removing illegal deforestation from its Amazon supply chain”. JBS has promised to do this by 2025, but it has made no commitment to restitution for the damage its operations have already caused. JBS disagreed with the Guardian’s analysis but declined to comment.
Soya and pulp
The soya sector is another powerhouse in the region. Between 2014 and 2020, five multinational food companies – Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Amaggi and Louis Dreyfus – extracted soya worth $18bn on global markets, according to the analysis. The major players have all signed a moratorium to halt deforestation.
Palm oil and pulp production are also growing industries in the Brazilian Amazon. The Brazilian paper maker Suzano produced about $5bn of eucalyptus pulp between 2018 and 2022, according to the analysis. Brasil Biofuels is established entirely in the Amazon, and had revenues in 2022 of about $305m. Agropalma, another biofuel giant, operates mainly in the Amazonian state of Pará and had revenues of about $284m in 2021 and $468m in 2022, with plans to increase production by 50% by 2025.
The companies involved in these activities all claim they are part of the Amazon solution because they only plant on land that was degraded more than 10 years ago. “We have a regenerative business model,” says Suzano, adding that it plants more than 1.2m trees a day and only harvests what it plants.
There is plenty that it is not possible to quantify or measure. The analysis does not include the corporations providing services – the giant seed tech companies, or the construction companies building roads and houses, the hydropower companies and heavy machinery producers. Without measurable assets, it is impossible to estimate the value being produced for those companies within the legal Amazon territory. The timber and fishing industries have remained far more diversified, as have most of the crops (bananas, acai, cacao) besides the ones mentioned above.
And the analysis does not include the most valuable asset of all: land, and the role that the cattle industry has played in converting forest into pasture. The Science Panel for the Amazon concluded that 15.1m hectares (37.3m acres) of public land was taken into private hands between 1995 and 2017, and noted a trend in which “cattle enterprises bought or appropriated forested land at a relatively low market price and, after ‘producing’ land without forest, transferred it at the much higher price of land covered by pasture”.
These operations may have yielded $400m a year in profit for that period alone, states the report, arguing that cattle is the perfect way to transform forest into private property.
One of the problems, observers say, is that an extractivist development model has prevailed in the Brazilian Amazon ever since it was opened up by the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. The World Bank has belatedly recognised the folly of this approach, with a recent report finding that the losses caused by clearing the Amazon, at $317bn a year, were seven times higher than the gains from commodity extraction.
But the trend has been towards ever greater depletion of the forest to satisfy global markets and shareholders, encouraged by the Brazilian government which has helped things along with easily available finance, tax exemptions and hefty subsidies.
Meanwhile, it is still often impossible to establish the provenance of beef, gold or other commodities from the rainforest, and global market regulators and trade institutions have been criticised for continuing to permit opaque supply chains.
This logic, which has prevailed since the first European colonisers invaded South America more than 500 years ago, is now under intense scrutiny because the Amazon is so degraded that scientists warn this pillar of the global climate is close to collapse. At the very least, companies operating in this region need to be more accountable, more transparent, more efficient and more willing to pass on environmental costs to their customers and shareholders rather than nature.
‘Giving something back’
In response to the Guardian’s analysis, several of the companies said they contributed to the local economy, followed national laws and tried to minimise their environmental impact. Their responses give an idea of the varying levels of commitment to “giving something back”.
Brazil Biofuels argued it should not be considered an extractive company because it only planted palm oil plantations on land degraded before 2007. “The business model recovers the Amazon biome, contributes to the balance of the forest, stocks carbon, [and] works to recompose the soil cover and the biogeochemical and hydrological cycles. In addition, by generating employment and income for needy communities, it encourages forest preservation and reduces the impact of deforestation,” it said.
Similarly, the eucalyptus firm Suzano said it was a “vocal critic of the lack of action to combat deforestation in Brazil” and had a regenerative business model. “Over 40% of our land is set aside for permanent conservation (nearly 1m hectares), including significant areas in the Amazon, Cerrado and Atlantic Forest biomes,” the company said in an email. It claimed its social programmes had helped 30,000 people out of poverty and generated R$79m of income for local people.
The mining firm Vale stressed the role it plays in the local and Brazilian economy, saying the Carajas complex and other operations in the Amazon accounted for almost half of all Brazil’s mineral exports, and it protected more than 800,000 hectares (2m acres) of rainforest in the state of Pará in partnership with Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade. Vale said it “reaffirms its commitment to transparency and sustainable mining, promoting socioeconomic development and conservation in the areas where it operates”.
Norsk Hydro said it had been established since 1905, with social responsibility as part of its culture. However, the move from joint venture ownerships to becoming an operator of large plants in remote areas of Brazil had been a steep learning curve. “We work closely with the communities where we operate. After the Brazil rainfall in 2018, we realised our relationship and trust from our neighbours wasn’t as good as it should have been, so we have made efforts to improve our dialogue with local communities. We focus in particular on enabling young people to get an education, and on improving and implementing new technologies in our operations to reduce our impact,” it said.
Amaggi, the largest private producer of soya beans in the world, said it did not recognise the Guardian’s estimates of financial data because they were not based on a precise tool. The Brazil-based firm said it did not sell from areas deforested after 2008 in the Amazon biome, and that it ran social investment projects through foundations, including efforts to improve food security. During the pandemic, it donated more than 150,000 staple food kits.
The grain trader Cargill, the biggest privately owned company in the US, said it had accelerated its commitment to eliminate deforestation in its soya supply chain in the Amazon and two other biomes by 2025. The multinational said it was investing significantly in ending deforestation in South America by running programmes and training to help farmers, increasing technology to improve traceability, and investing in teams in Brazil and throughout South America to accelerate deforestation efforts.
Minerva Foods, which operates numerous slaughterhouses in the Amazon, said it monitored the land use of its direct cattle suppliers and worked to get them into a programme to measure and reduce carbon emissions. The company said it used the best available technology to ensures compliance with environmental and land tenure regulations.
Marfrig told the Guardian that under a programme launched in 2020, it now monitored 100% of its direct suppliers, while for indirect suppliers the traceability rates reached 80% in the Amazon biome and 74% in the Cerrado biome. “Marfrig has been recognised as the leading animal protein company in various rankings, indices, lists and reports that serve as benchmarks for evaluating ESG [environmental, social and governance] policies and practices in recent years,” it said.
Agropalma said it had a long history of preserving nature and respecting the communities close to its operations. “We are committed to zero deforestation: through a strict no-deforestation policy, since 2002, Agropalma no longer converts forests into palm plantations,” it said. It noted it also had a longstanding partnership with Conservation International to monitor the biodiversity in its forest reserves.
JBS disputed the Guardian’s analysis but declined to comment further.
Research by Gisele Lobato, Pablo Pires Fernandes, Andrew Downie, The Mining Observatory, Refinitiv, Imazon and Trase.
Tragic Train Derailments in India: Over 240 Lives Lost and Hundreds Trapped in Wreckage
By Satish Sharma | Contributor ‘Voice of EU’
The incident occurred approximately 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) northwest of New Delhi, the capital city. Rescue efforts are underway, with around 700 injured individuals already taken to nearby hospitals for urgent medical attention. The cause of the derailment is currently under investigation, as authorities work tirelessly to determine the factors that led to this catastrophic event.
Dattatraya Bhausaheb Shinde, the leading administrator in the Balasore district, confirmed the death toll and expressed deep sorrow over the tragedy. The extent of the devastation prompted an immediate response, with nearly 500 police officers, rescue workers, and medical personnel deployed to the scene. These brave individuals, equipped with 75 ambulances and buses, are diligently working to extricate approximately 200 individuals who remain trapped inside the wreckage.
According to Amitabh Sharma, a spokesperson for the railroad ministry, the derailment involved 10 to 12 coaches from one train, causing debris from the mangled coaches to spill onto an adjacent track. Tragically, another passenger train traveling in the opposite direction collided with the fallen wreckage. As a result, up to three coaches from the second train also derailed, exacerbating the scope of the disaster.
Initial reports indicate that the derailed train, known as the Coromandel Express, was en route from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in southern India. The news of this horrific incident reached Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who expressed his distress and offered his condolences to the affected families. In a tweet, he assured that all possible assistance is being extended, having already discussed the matter with the railway minister.
While the Indian government has taken measures to enhance rail safety, accidents continue to occur frequently on the vast railway network, which is the largest under a single management worldwide. India’s railways carry millions of passengers daily, covering an extensive network of 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles). Despite ongoing efforts to modernize infrastructure and equipment, many accidents are attributed to human error or outdated signaling systems.
This tragic incident serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced in ensuring the safety of India’s railway system. As rescue operations persist, the nation mourns the loss of lives and hopes for the swift recovery of those injured. The investigation into the causes of the derailment will play a crucial role in preventing similar incidents in the future.
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