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Ecoregions as Geopolitical Subregions

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According to WWF (World Wildlife Foundation), an ecoregion is a “large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions”. Ecoregions, in other words, are places that vary in terms of geographical conditions (e.g. The Congo River basin).

When we analyze the regional diversity within a country, what if instead of analyzing the political boundaries of a country, we, in turn, analyze a country’s ecoregions and contextualize them as diverse geopolitical subregions? In my interpretation, if an ecoregion, in terms of species, landforms and natural communities, is a space that varies from another physical space, why can’t we say the same about a country’s geopolitical regions?

What if we think of a geopolitical ecoregion as a distinct political space, with different ethnic groups, distinct political organization and governance, with their own social complexities, and their own economic specializations, however, within the context of a physical ecoregion, meaning: a group of people inhabiting the same landform and/or space (ecoregion), yet with distinct particularities that change when transitioning between one ecoregion onto another.

In this article I shall briefly introduce another analytical concept by analyzing Guatemala’s ecoregions as different geopolitical subregions. In Guatemala’s case there are three different physical regions: pacific coastal plains, highlands and the Petén rainforest lowlands; however, in order to be more specific, and to appreciate the diverse complexities from one ecoregion to another, I shall outline four specific ecoregions as geopolitical subregions: 1) Ermita Valley, 2) indigenous highlands, 3) Motagua river valley thornscrub, 4) tropical moist forests, and 5) pacific coastal lowlands. Lastly, this is a personal, general analysis and my own interpretation of how my country’s ecoregions ought to be defined and understood from a geopolitical viewpoint.

ecoregions

Guatemala’s Ecoregions

1. Ermita Valley

 Guatemala’s capital was transferred more than three times, due to diverse environmental conditions and social strife during the colonization era (from Iximche to the Almolonga Valley, because of indigenous resistance between the Spanish conquistadores and the Kaqchikel tribe; from Almolonga to Antigua Guatemala, because of flooding; and from Antigua Guatemala to its actual location, the Ermita valley, because of an earthquake). Yet, eventually, it was the Ermita valley that was finally chosen to become Guatemala City’s permanent settlement. As if it were a constant lesson of trial and error. This choice was no coincidence. It was thought in geostrategic terms, by taking into account both climatic conditions and transportation/communication/commercial strategic corridors. However, the topographic barriers were never entirely considered.

Guatemala City (14º N) lies in the Ermita valley, which is, ultimately, a convergence zone of diverse climatic conditions. Guatemala city sits at an elevation of 4,900 feet, giving Guatemala City a very stable—yet fresh—temperature ranging between 15º C and 23º. Additionally, because of the tropical easterlies that blow  (5º to 25º N/ 5º to 25º S) from the northeast, these winds tend regulate the wind circulation of Guatemala City. Also, mainly from its southeast, due to its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean (43 NM/79KM in a straight line from Guatemala City to Puerto de San Jose), high-pressure oceanic winds stemming from the Equatorial Counter Current warm ocean current, clashes with the highlands’ daily low-pressure gradient alongside the warm tropical easterlies, which influence the warm, rainy season (from May to mid-October).

As a consequence, these climatic convergence zone gives the Ermita valley throughout the day constant rain showers during the warm, rainy season, meanwhile, during the cold, dry season (end of October to March) the Equatorial Counter Current low-pressure system drifts away from Guatemala city, ultimately providing Guatemala city clear blue skies. All in all, Guatemala City, in the Ermita Valley, has a quasi-Mediterranean temperate climate, in spite of being located in the tropics. Politically and economically what does this mean? Guatemala City has the perfect conditions to increase its demography. Guatemala city metropolitan area has one of the largest demographics in Central America, with almost 5 million inhabitants. Guatemala city has 1 million inhabitants less than El Salvador and Nicaragua, 3 million less than Honduras, yet with more population than Costa Rica and Panama. It was no surprise that Guatemala City, was chosen to be Central America’s General Captaincy during the Spanish colonization. And it is the main demographic center that receives most of the internal migration, needless to add an increasing migration from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The ecoregion of the Ermita Valley, where Guatemala City is located, allows one to label Guatemala, in accordance to territorial morphological terms, as a ‘compact’ country. This means: From the Ermita Valley, Guatemala’s borders are relatively equidistant, by specially taking into account the distance from the Ermita Valley to Honduras via Chiquimula (# 4 on the map), to El Salvador via Jutiapa (# 13 on the map), and to Mexico via San Marcos (#17 on the map). In the geopolitical imagination of Guatemalans, Belize is considered a non-Central American country, but, rather, it is perceived as a Caribbean country. Also, from Guatemala’s point of view, Belize was taken from Guatemala because of  bad political and commercial decisions. As a result, the Ermita Valley is the pivotal axis of all Guatemala. It is near its most important seaports (Puerto Quetzal and Champerico); it is the economic and financial capital powerhouse of the Central American Isthmus; and it is strategically located from the a) food-producing areas (Motagua River Valley Thornscrub); b) coffee belt (mainly from nearby regions such as Antigua Guatemala and Sololá); and c) commercial large-industrial agriculture and cotton-producing areas in the pacific coastal lowlands. Yet, in spite of its advantages, as I shall shorty introduce, politically, the Ermita Valley—or core geography—has a hard time in politically controlling and subduing its periphery.  

2. Indigenous Highlands

Though in ecological terms, this region would be denominated as a sub-temperate moist forest. In my mind, when it comes to the highlands of Guatemala, I believe that they should be addressed as the ‘indigenous highlands’. This is the most diverse, yet economically poorest geopolitical subregion of Guatemala, and the hardest to politically control and understand as a citizen of Guatemala City. In my view, the indigenous highlands encompass two subregions within the highlands: The western and central indigenous highlands. This ecoregion consists of approximately 45% of Guatemalan territory.

The highlands of Guatemala (though located in the tropics) have a mixture of tropical savannah and temperate climate. As a result, the seasonal variations are usually felt at lower elevations, nearby the pacific coastal lowlands. Because of the microclimates (low-pressure cells during the day and high-pressure cells throughout the night, in addition to the fertile volcanic ash and soil pH) in this region, the borderlands of the pacific coastal lowlands and the indigenous highlands have one of the best quality-produced coffees of Guatemala and the world. However, as the elevation increases, the less fertile and rockier the land is. Consequently, the indigenous populations in the highlands depend upon subsistence agriculture—i.e. corn, beans, grain, wheat, potatoes, and animal grazing—instead of high-yield cash crops as their counterparts in the pacific coastal lowlands.

The indigenous highland region of Guatemala is part of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which runs northwest-southwest from Mexico (originally a part of the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental), making its way into the Honduran-Nicaraguan border up to the Cordillera Isabelia in Nicaragua. This region, which traverses Guatemala across the Honduran and Salvadoran border, into Nicaragua, circumscribes a total of 6 different mountain chains known as ‘sierras’. Out of these 6 sierras, 3 sierras (e.g. Cuchumatanes, Chamá, and De Las Minas) belong to the Indigenous highlands. Last but not least, Guatemala’s main river system is a Pacific Ocean drainage area; most of the rivers and streams that originate within the indigenous highlands drain in the Pacific Basin. Nevertheless, despite of highland-originated rivers, Guatemala does not have a proper navigational river system—except for the lower end of the Motagua River—given the topographic constraints amid its different watersheds in the form of valleys and sierras. For this reason, commercially speaking, population centers in the highlands, without a proper navigable system, have been historically disconnected with the rest of the country. Put it simply, one valley and its villages is an entire different world compared with other villages in another valley. In addition, because of the topographic barriers, Guatemala has had a hard time achieving a full political and economic integration with the highlands. And at the same time, due to a wide-array of social and geographical conditions, this region has one of the highest numbers of chronic child malnutrition in the whole country, which clearly given the poor levels of education, lack of strong government institutions, isolation, and soil fertility, this region overall can be considered Guatemala’ socially most diverse backcountry.

Politically, for the Guatemalan central government, the indigenous highlands, is the most diverse and challenging ecoregions in Guatemala. It has over 16 different Mayan languages, and 24 ethnic groups. The Mayan languages are spoken by the numerous indigenous tribes emanating from the valleys and sierras within the highlands (only in Huehuetenango, # 10 in the map, 9 Mayan languages are spoken!) As a result, it’s no wonder why most of the war theaters of the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), was fought in the indigenous highlands, mainly in the Ixil triangle of northern Quiche (# 7 in the map) alongside most of the western highlands.

Moreover, it was through the indigenous highlands that the Spaniards first penetrated Guatemala, while allying themselves with the Kaqchikel tribe, by defeating the then-most powerful K’iche’ tribe.  Eventually, the Spaniards betrayed the Kaqchikel tribe and ravished the Indigenous highlands throughout the entire colonization period until Guatemala’s independence from Spain in 1821. As a result, in the modern-era, there is still a large degree of resentment towards the mestizo and white population, specifically towards the private sector and large Guatemalan corporations from Guatemala City. In spite of the fact that this area has a huge potential for hydroelectric and mining projects, many Amerindian communities have sabotaged these projects, with the support of foreign NGOs that have pushed indigenous auto-emancipation plans in the region, further destabilizing Guatemala. Nevertheless, regardless of their commonality, the indigenous groups in the highlands have never been able to politically unite themselves, (in some villages, deep in the mountains, some of them rarely speak Spanish), which, as a consequence, has led Guatemala—in spite of their indigenous population—to be a state governed by mestizo and white presidents.

If there would be an analogy that would best describe the Guatemalan highlands, it would most certainly be the Russian North Caucasus: These indigenous groups are part of the same state but different nations as a whole, living in fragmented spaces and finding shield and in the mountains. Though many of these groups speak Spanish, they still do so with a heavy indigenous accent, because they have still conserved their traditional and cultural Mayan identity and language in their communities. Because of this, each valley and sierra represents separate political entities, where they have their own enforcement of laws and linguistic barriers. Also, because of their own law enforcement customs, there is a high number of lynching, and rarely the Guatemalan state has enough coercive power to enforce their monopoly of security in the indigenous highlands.
The indigenous highlands, rather than uniting Guatemala, have historically, culturally, politically, and commercially fragmented Guatemala.

3.  Motagua River Valley Thornscrub

If you would journey from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios, Izabal (Guatemala’s only outlet in the Caribbean Sea), you would notice how arid and dry the Motagua River valley ecoregion is—which is why the biggest common denominator is the thornscrub. This ecoregion, also known as ‘el oriente’ (the east), is actually more like Guatemala’s wild west; it is mainly the spiritual base of Guatemala’s most notorious drug cartels that operate in the form of family clans. Think of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia and then think of the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion as something similar, except for the sea, olives and pasta.

Geographically, one of the main climatic reasons on why this ecoregion tends to have a semi-arid, savannah-like climate, is because of the orographic effect that originates with the combination of both the tropical easterlies and the North Equatorial Current from the Caribbean Sea, converging into Izabal’s (#11 in the map) topographic obstacles (Sierra De Las Minas, Sierra Santa Cruz, Sierra Del Merendón, and to a lesser degree, Mico mountains). For this reason, the Foehn winds, coming from the northeast, which bring moist marine air from the Caribbean Sea, crash into Izabal’s numerous topographic barriers. When these moist marine winds surpass Izabal’s sierras, they descend with a warm, dry air, as a result, creating a rain shadow effect on the leeward slopes of the sierras (particularly the Sierra De Las Minas) that face the departments of Zacapa, Chiquimula, El Progreso and Jalapa. Yet, one of the primordial reasons on why these departments are not complete deserts alike is because of the Motagua river system and its tributaries, including the numerous valleys amid the diverse sierras that separate these regions (e.g. Sierra del Merendón), thereby providing this ecoregion with enough wind circulation, sunlight, and rain, equaling to arable land and soil fertility. Because of this climatic phenomena, The Motagua River Valley Thornscrub has sufficient soil fertility to produce perennial crops, mainly in Zacapa and Jalapa, and to a lesser extent Chiquimula; however, El Progreso has an agriculturally unworthy limestone bedrock floor, therefore, it is the least inhabited departments of all Guatemala, mainly serving as a transit point between Guatemala and Puerto Barrios, Izabal. And also, because of this climatic variation, the northern part of Chiquimula department—which is one of the most arid departments of this ecoregion—is considered a red zone concerning chronic infantile malnutrition. As a consequence, this ecoregion, geographically, is an ecoregion of extremes: It either has fertile valleys, good enough to produce tropical fruits and raise beef cattle, or it has a limestone bedrock type of soil, limiting the arable land and thus limiting population capacity support.

Geostrategically, this ecoregion is a region of valleys, sierras and rugged hills—however not as high as the indigenous highlands. Due to the Motagua River valley’s proximity to the Honduran Caribbean coast and proximity to the tropical moist forests ecoregion, indirectly, makes the Motagua River valley a natural gateway towards Mexico, Belize and further inland. In terms of drug mobility and illegal immigration arousing from Honduras, this ecoregion has become a leading entry point and node to Guatemala. Chiquimula (# 4 in the map) is the most geostrategic of all four departments that make part of the Motagua River Valley Thornscrub ecoregion. Chiquimula is close enough to the Sierra Madre of Honduras and El Salvador, yet far-flung from Guatemala’s government control, protected by the sierras of Zacapa and Jalapa.  

Ethnically, the Motagua River Valley Thornscrub is an ethnically homogenous region, with chiefly both white and mestizo Spanish-speaking population. There are only two Mayan languages in the region—i.e. Poqomam and Ch’orti’—which are known indigenous minorities. Many European migrants, exclusively those arriving from the Iberian Peninsula and Mediterranean Europe that, after disembarking in Santo Tomas de Castilla, populated this valley conformed by multiple migrants alongside the already-settled mestizo population since colonial times. This ecoregion has a population and shared identity with those of Salvadoran and Honduran borderlands, oftentimes carrying firearms as part of their cultural identity. When their honor has been disrespected, violence or negotiated settlement is one of the leading cultural traits within the residents of this ecoregion. At first glance, as a Guatemalan, in my mind, the toughest and most loyal bodyguards usually originate from this ecoregion. But it is because of this culture of blood, honor and patriarchal hierarchical social structure that, according to Guatemalan stereotypes, it is this ecoregion’s population that resorts to violence and blood, if not settled by a respected town member or patriarchal figure.

Crime is low in this region, with no gang cliques, as in the case of Guatemala City. Yet, this is not because there is a strong authority that enforces the law accordingly. Rather it is the drug cartels that enforce their own codes of honor and security amongst their areas of controls, by building community clinics, restaurants and other commercial assets that emphasizes a sense of loyalty amongst the various townships via employment for the communities. One reason why mainly this population shares the same ethnicity and political identity, is because this ecoregion has been an important—and only—transit route between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios, therefore, many Spanish immigrants settled in this region, which can resemble at times, to those dry-arid regions of southern Spain, such as Extremadura, Andalucía, for instance. Furthermore, according to Guatemalan historians, it was such population that brought their own cultural legacies to this area of Guatemala, and thus shared with southwestern Honduras and northwestern El Salvador.

4. Tropical Moist Forests

Izabal and Peten (# 5 and # 11 in the map) represent another hinterland in the Guatemalan regional mentality. Though this ecoregion is scientifically and more accurately described as a tropical moist forest, in simpler terms, is pretty much known as a jungle rainforest. In essence, these two departments represent Guatemala’s jungle forests. This ecoregion is moderately populated since most of the population, in the case of Izabal, revolves around Lake Izabal and confined to the main transportation corridor from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios. In the case of Peten, this region, given its size (35, 854 km2), is theoretically underpopulated; most of its population gravitates around Flores (Petén’s principal city) and its widely distributed cities in the lowlands, nearing Izabal and Alta Verapaz. Notwithstanding, it is also an imperative region that has been pivotal in the geopolitics of Guatemala, from both a historic and modern day viewpoint.

Geographically, the Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion is a combination of low-level sierras (Sierra de Santa Cruz, Sierra de Chama), low-elevated highlands (Maya Highlands), coupled with limestone plains that bound together this particular ecoregion. This particular ecoregion has the right ‘ingredients’ of climate and weather: 1) the right amount of insolation (solar energy), 2) temperature, 3) pressure, 4) wind, and 5) precipitation to evolve into tropical rainforests, and one of the last virgin rainforests of Guatemala (e.g. North Peten). Yet, the climatic reason why this ecoregion is composed of different subtropical, warm, moist forests is because of the perpendicular angle in which the North Equatorial Current passes right through this region. Without elevated topographical obstacles, the North Equatorial Current alongside the Trade Winds, provide the Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel Island, Belize and, essentially, Peten and Izabal, with plenty of rainfall (around 120 inches) from the humid waters of the Caribbean sea. Agriculturally, this means that Peten, with its limestone type of lowlands and dense forests, is not the most suitable region to plant and harvest cash crops, as opposed to the pacific coastal lowlands. Consequently, it is an agriculturally inadequately developed region, with minimal cash crops. Yet, when it comes to livestock, palm oil, underexploited oil basins (e.g. La Libertad refinery), and vast space to develop, it is one of the most promising regions of Guatemala. Meanwhile, Izabal, though it has the same moist rainforests as Peten, generally speaking, the Izabal-Zacapa ecological frontier, provides Izabal with some commercial agriculture potential—i.e. bananas, cotton, cocoa, some coffee and livestock. However, to the western side of Lake Izabal, as like the case of Peten, Izabal has basic subsistence agriculture and some mining projects, as with the case of the Fenix Nickel Project.

Peten, compared with the relative isolation of Izabal, is another hinterland in the Guatemalan political map. Historically, the Spaniards colonized Peten 160 years after their settlement in the Guatemalan indigenous highlands—it was left alone for more than a century. Peten was one of the hardest landscapes to secure and to stabilize. Long story short, Peten was one of the first spaces on which the Mayan civilization took place. Nevertheless, after the Spaniards subdued, with an army of Aztec warriors, most of the Guatemalan highland kingdoms, it was the Itza tribe and other tribes of hunters and gatherers, that resisted the most against the Spanish thrust for colonization space, materialized in the form of Christian missionaries. All in all, Spain penetrated Guatemalan lands during the 1520s, however, the Itza and Mopan tribes would prove to be the most battle-hardened tribes of all Guatemala, delaying the full Spanish takeover of Peten and Guatemala until 1697. Peten’s fierce tribes and inhospitable terrain, prove to be one of the most difficult landscape in Guatemala to secure; the remnants of the Itza and Mopan tribes would be absorbed by the Alta Verapaz highland Q’eqchi tribes. Eventually, Peten, would be contested by the British throughout the British colonization of the Caribbean, but secured by the Spaniards and eventually inherited by the Guatemalan government after border disputes between the Yucatan General Captaincy and the Guatemala General Captaincy. Finally, Izabal’s history is not as dramatic as Peten’s was. In order to fight the pirates that plagued the Honduran Caribbean coast, the Spaniards decided to build a port that would be eventually known as Santo Tomas de Castilla, currently the most important seaport of Izabal, and Guatemala’s only outlet to the Caribbean. Izabal, unlike Peten, was used by the Spaniards as their main transportation and communication corridor between Guatemala City and Izabal, thus making Izabal another strategic point in Guatemala’s history.

Peten and Izabal illustrate two important examples in the tropical moist forests ecoregion of Guatemala, however, with different historical legacies. The former was hard to subdue and conquer while the latter was simply used as a node that would lead to the exploration and conquer of modern-day Honduras and further onto the isthmus. For this reason, Peten and Izabal (# 5 and # 11 in the map) played a leading role in the Spanish conquest of the Central American Isthmus. Geostrategically, however, Peten presents itself as if it were a separate country within Guatemala, and with a tremendous amount of Mexican influence. As aforementioned, the Yucatan General Captaincy (modern-day Mexico) would be the departing point of the Spanish expeditions, notably from Campeche, Merida and Salamanca de Bacalar onto Nojpeten, the Itza tribal kingdom, indirectly knitting the would-be Mexican influence, after the Mexican emancipation from Spain. Therefore, unsurprisingly, during the late 1950s, the Guatemalan government fostered internal migration from the Motagua River valley, pacific coastal lowlands, and central indigenous Highlands (specifically Alta Verapaz) to acculturate Peten. (In 1866 Peten was formally absorbed into Guatemala political geography, thereby reflecting the isolation and indirect dispute Peten was between Mexico and Guatemala.) Also, during the 1960s and 1970s, Peten was used as a base by the Guatemalan military regimes to creep and intimidate Belize of potential invasion. However, given ongoing civil war (1960-1996), and a threat by the British Government, Guatemala desisted in retaking Belize.

Commercially and geographically, Peten and Izabal remain isolated places. The indigenous highlands block political control of Peten and Izabal; as a consequence, both territories have become an extension of the drug cartels that originated in the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion. Last but not least, Izabal is only connected by one important interdepartmental highway from Guatemala City, thus easily being cut whenever violent protests erupt in Guatemala City. Furthermore, because of the topographic obstacles from the Motagua River ecoregion, and the tropical moist forests and sierras of Izabal, Peten is a region where it is preferable to fly instead of a lengthy 8 to 10 hour drive. Consequently, Izabal and Peten, remain another hinterland in the Guatemalan geopolitical map.

5. Pacific Coastal Lowlands

As initially mentioned, Guatemala is a country of many hinterlands and borderlands. But if there is a region that represents the core geography of Guatemala, and a region that is fully controlled by the central government, that would be the pacific coastal lowlands; not only an area where the government exerts full control, but also an area that represents the bread and basket of Guatemala as a whole.

The Coastal lowlands is comprised by 5 separate departments, sharing similar mestizo ethnicity and stable climatic conditions, without much variety as the indigenous highlands, neither an unbalanced orographic rain shadow effect as in the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion, nor the limestone, unfertile soil variety of the Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion. To a large degree, because of the Pacific Equatorial Counter Current, in this ecoregion, during the day, cool air descends, traveling in an onshore flow, until eventually is lifted when reaching some of the volcanic areas close to the Ermita Valley. Eventually, when the air ascends, these sea-hugging lowlands enjoy a continuous onshore sea breeze flow, steadily providing the right amount of humidity, insolation, temperature and air, influencing the soil pH (between 6.8 to 7.2) of the plains. During the night, when the land cools down, the ocean becomes warmer. And as the cool air descends from the indigenous highlands and Ermita valley’s hillsides, a refreshing land breeze aids this particular region. Lastly, in the same vein, since most of the indigenous highlands rivers, tributaries and small streams drain in the Pacific Ocean; these watersheds yield Guatemala’s most important developed agricultural spaces and industrialized areas.

Economically speaking, this is the bread and basket of Guatemala. But, apart from an economic viewpoint, this is the only ecoregion that remains the most reachable, unobstructed ecoregion of all. For this obvious reason, this eco region represents Guatemala’s core geography. And since the colonization epoch, this ecoregion has been the most developed, connected and transited with both the indigenous highlands and Ermita valley. Yet from a security point of view, it represents an open space for illegal immigration contraband groups and an easy gateway for criminal gangs (e.g. MS 13 and Barrio 18) that arouse from El Salvador, which easily reach the Ermita Valley, via Jutiapa (#13 on the map). Also, contraband and narcotics that stem from Ecuadorian (e.g. Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas) and Colombian pacific ports (e.g. Bucaramanga) flawlessly make their way into the pacific coastal lowlands, eventually crossing into Mexico, without having to pass through Guatemala City. As a result, in spite of the rapid urbanization and industrialization this region upholds, it is a clear path for Colombian and Mexican cartels to commercialize in a hassle-free, point-to-point operational environment. Nevertheless, all of these departments are within an ease reach by the Guatemalan central government, if compared with the highlands and the tropical moist forest ecoregions.

Conclusion

•  Even if this has been a generally, non-academic personal analysis, we have seen that by describing each geopolitical subfield, in the form of ecoregions, we are brought to ponder and grasp the intersection of how physical geography and political geography come to terms with each other—something unfortunately mainstream academia does not support.

•  Guatemala is one of the most difficult territories within Central America to exert and control political dominance and economic integration. It is a highly fragmented country, but this fragmentation is experienced best in the indigenous highlands, where still, up to this day, after 500 years of Spanish domination, indigenous groups have conserved their identity, customs, laws and sense of governance. From an anthropological and academic viewpoint, it is one of the most fascinating countries of all Latin America. But from a statist point of view, the indigenous highlands are a buffer zone between Peten and the Ermita Valley, by shielding and isolating from government control the majority of the indigenous groups as well as control over the cartel regions and Mexican influence in the Peten basin.

Halford Mackinder, who unfortunately has been deemed as a determinist and bigot, had argued that geography is there to either be taken advantage from or simply to limit oneself. I wonder what the position of the Guatemalan government is. Moreover, if they are actually conscious of our barriers as a nation…

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Green Planet

Climate politics and the future of carbon emissions

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Climate change is no longer a far-off problem, it is happening here, it is happening now and if it is happening now then efforts to curb it should be done right now rather to wait for tomorrow when tightening nature grip made us regret even more than now. To talk specifically about carbon emission, it is a single issue, a “world issue” that is demanding serious world efforts, not mere words to highlight the problems which we all know quite well. It is the right time we stand up, we fight together to save our existing and the future. Yet, like any path having its troubles, one major hurdle on the way to reduce carbon emission is the climate politics in the form of the North-South divide. The divide which has been existing ever since not only in areas of hard politics but also in areas of soft politics i.e climate change, and imposing a challenge to all future efforts and on those been done already including the Kyoto protocol, Rio+20 agreement, the Paris climate agreement, etc.

Issue here is that both the North (Developed) and the South (Developing) give their sides of the argument yet no one is ready to take the responsibility or at least willing to find a collective solution. Thus making the environment suffer and the carbon emission constantly increasing.

Looking at the North, it claims that climate change is a worldwide danger jeopardizing the biological system and is to a great extent the aftereffect of CO2 outflow by both North and the South. Thus it is a collective responsibility of both to reduce emission and to ensure carbon cut not just the North. However, in response to this the South argues, yes climate change is an issue that is raising world temperature and major emitters are in both North and South, but the North is ignoring the fact that it has been emitting gases for centuries. For instance, Europe, United States, Canada are polluting the environment since the 19th century while the developing countries have begun in 1980’s. Furthermore, what the developed world ignores is that the development of the North has already got peaked while of the developing world has just started. So based on this the North should go for the carbon cuts and use alternative sources of energy i.e hydro, wind, green energy, etc. As the South at this stage cannot afford carbon cuts which will affect its development process. Also, it does not even have enough carbon-free resources at present to ensure carbon reduction.

Hence, this N-S divide has ruined the success of so far twenty-five Conference of Parties (COP) related to climate change held each year in Nov and Dec mostly in Bonn, Germany. Taking a gander at them individually to explore how the divide has not let any single agreement on carbon emission to effectively achieve its set target.

Starting with the Kyoto protocol that came into effect in 2005 with 192 parties determining to reduce emission according to the allotted carbon quota. An important aspect of this protocol was “common but differentiated responsibility” by which the North was held largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere. However, if we analyze it deeply then from the very start commitment to the agreement had flaws. As the United States being the world hegemon should’ve lead the agreement from the front but sadly it even didn’t ratify the agreement as the then-President George W. Bush stated “Senate’s vote, 95–0, shows there is a clear consensus that the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns. Signing protocol will cause potential damage to USA economy”. Thus a clear depiction of the USA preferring its economic development over the environmental concerns.

Then the first commitment period (2008-2012) of this agreement failed to achieve its targets with emission further increased by 32%.Moreover, Canada withdrew from the protocol in 2012 with its then environment minister, Peter Kent stated “the Kyoto protocol doesn’t cover world two largest emitters USA and China, therefore it cannot work” and as “Canada didn’t meet target so it wants to avoid $14 billion in penalties”. Seeing this response by the developed world, in the second commitment round (2012 onwards) only 37 countries had binding targets, and Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan withdrew. Not just this, but Russia, Japan, New Zealand though participated in the 1stcommitment round but refused to go for the 2ndcommitment. So, it’s clear how the N-S divide affected the commitment to reduce carbon emission with the developed world especially the largest emitters like the USA and China not even ratifying it and even those like Canada who did ratify but withdrew later. The same is with the developing south because if the developed North is unwilling then the south’s one-sided efforts are meaningless.

Now, looking at the Copenhagen agreement (2009) which aims to limit the global temperature no more than 2 °C (above pre-industrial level). It was believed to be the largest and the first-ever true agreement that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can ensure environmental stability because it was initiated by the USA along with the four other largest emitters’ china, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen agreement just like the Kyoto protocol had flaws and most importantly the N-S divide has again tumbledown its progress. This is because it doesn’t contain any legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions as the then PM of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, stated “We have made a start” but that the agreement needs to become legally binding quickly.” Then Brazil’s climate change ambassador called the agreement “disappointing”.

This is the response of North, now looking at South. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales said, “The meeting has failed. It’s unfortunate for the planet”. Most importantly Lumumba Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who was the chief negotiator for the G77 group of developing nations at the UNFCC conference in 2009 criticized the agreement by stating “It’s an incredibly imbalanced text intended to subvert two years of negotiations. It does not recognize the proposals and the voice of developing countries. Thus we have been asked to sign a suicide pact”. Consequently, this conflict of opinion between the North and the South has again led to the failure of the Copenhagen agreement in reducing carbon emission and the world temperature.

Moving to the Rio+20 convention on biological diversity, it shows no difference from the rest. As the United States was among those four countries that have signed but not ratified the agreement. Then key world leaders including G20 members, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron have not attended the conference showing that they don’t even prioritize sustainability issues. Not just this but the developing countries too showed resentment when the USA, EU, and Switzerland rejected the G77 plan to frame the context of green economy explicitly. 

Likewise, COP-19 held in Warsaw, Poland to reduce greenhouse gases emission saw the same divide as G77 and china proposal for a new funding mechanism ($100 million every year) to help the vulnerable South deal with “loss and damage” caused by climate change was opposed by developed countries leading to 132 poor countries and major environment activist like Oxfam, Greenpeace, Action Aid, etc. walkout from the conference.

Lastly, the Paris climate agreement in 2015 which showed diversion from the rest considering it was binding on all 197 countries, and committed to achieve zero-emissionwith both developing and developed states agreed on a carbon cuts.  The agreement was achieved under the leadership of Obama as he stated “President Xi and I intend to continue working together in the months ahead to make sure our countries lead on climate”. For the first time, the two largest emitters, China and the USA, worked on common grounds. However, Donald Trump during his presidency calls it a “job-killing” and a “total disaster”as said“Obama pledges to cut emission has hurt the competitiveness of USA” and withdrew the USA on 4th-Nov, 2020. Yet, in response to this Joe Biden tweeted “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, Biden Administration will rejoin it.” This is exactly what happened as President Joe Biden’s very first act in the Oval Office was his signing an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement.

To sum up, the North-South divide is at the core of global environmental politics and is a debate that prevails on the grounds of unanswered questions as to who should bear the responsibility of the environmental damages. When the North shows willingness for change then it’s the South that creates hurdles, similarly when the South steps forward then the North shows aversion. If this will continue then the future of carbon emissions is intimidating. Therefore, need is to build a global consensus to free the environment from this blame game and to move towards sustainable development based on equitable contribution and accountability. It is now high time to put an end to all the differences existing now and in the past, as being humans our survival is at great risk. The need of the day is to work together to devise a common solution to our common problem and to ensure a healthy world for our existing and future generations.

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Green Planet

When Sea Levels Rise And Coastal Waters Darken…

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image source: University of Oldenburg (Foto: Zielinski)

Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

The coastal waters by Wilmington, Delaware, the president’s home base, have risen a record 3 mm in the past year.  Worse, the rate of increase is itself increasing portending a foot or more in the next century.  It means a rebuilding of docks plus barriers to prevent serious tidal flooding.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), affiliated with the College of William and Mary, has been collecting data on sea levels for the past 52 years.  It released its latest annual report recently, noting sea level rising by historic amounts — as in the case of Wilmington — as well as the accelerating rate of increase.

There are 32 tide gauges placed along the US coasts all the way to Alaska.  Maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these measure levels every six minutes.  Researchers at VIMS take a monthly average to avoid a skewed analysis due to unusual weather patterns like storms.

The Institute’s report presents sea level changes, assesses future trends, and tries to explain the increases or even decreases at particular localities.  Sea level changes are relative to the adjoining land.  For example, the rates are actually falling in Alaska but that is caused by shifting tectonic plates raising land and off-setting the sea level rise.

Researchers describe the persistent sea level rise as a “slow emergency” — not a storm that will be hitting tomorrow but trouble ahead and the report cards can help local authorities plan for the future.

Wetlands Watch works to preserve wetlands in Virginia’s coastal areas.  Rising sea level is a particular concern because it is expected to affect most of the state’s coastal wetlands.  Therefore in addition to policy advocacy, Wetlands Watch has developed Sea Rising Solutions, which helps in mapping out where flooding is likely.

Spreading the word about sea level rise and its consequences engages the whole community and motivates legislators and developers to adapt to the new norm and prepare ahead for a changing environment. 

There is another problem with coastal areas:  a gradual darkening of the sea water.  It is serious for such a change in color and clarity poses a significant threat to marine life.  The Coastal Ocean Darkening Project at the University of Oldenburg in Germany simulated the effects by filling huge metal vats with water and phytoplankton and hanging lamps above them to simulate sunlight.  They then darkened the water using low, medium and high concentrations of a brown liquid extracted from peat to simulate decaying organic matter.  The phytoplankton were all negatively affected but particularly in the vats with medium and high concentrations which blocked off more light.  Also some phytoplankton were affected more than others.  

The adverse consequences to the elemental base of the ocean’s food threatens marine species up the chain, and especially those relying on the phytoplankton types most affected.  Moreover, reduced vision hinders those species, like fish, relying on vision to hunt, while not affecting those that do not, like jellyfish.  

Why is the water darkening?  One hint might be that environmental regulation of fertilizer use goes along with improvements in the Mediterranean, the North Sea and parts of the North American coast.  And of course reducing global warming would decrease ice melt and subsequent sea level rise.

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Promoting Green Finance in Qatar: Post-Pandemic Opportunities and Challenges

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The recent COVID-19 pandemic had significant implications for both national economies and the global financial system, in addition to hindering the achievement of the sustainable development goals agenda. The UNDP estimates global human development—a combination of education, health, and living standards—could fall this year for the first time since 1990, which highlights how the effects of the pandemic present both an enormous challenge and tremendous opportunities for reaching the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With the additional challenges arising from climate change, governments have committed to several policy measures which promote a green recovery to rebuild their economies, while benefiting the people and the planet. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the public resources committed by governments to support a green recovery amount to at least USD 312 billion. These measures present tremendous opportunities for green finance in general, and Islamic green finance in particular, in the context of Muslim-majority countries.

The State of Qatar, in light of its National Vision 2030 and in order to enhance the diversification of its economy away from hydrocarbon, has taken several measures to mitigate climate change. These include increasing the use of solar energy to more than 20% of its energy mix by 2030, the optimal use of water, improving air quality, waste recycling, increasing green spaces, in addition to the country’s commitment to organizing the first “carbon neutral” tournament featuring the use of solar-powered stadiums and water and energy-saving cooling and lighting technology. The State is also a signatory of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and supports a number of global initiatives in relation to climate change mitigation.

All these initiatives could be funded via green finance. In this regard, there are four global trends in the financial industry that the State of Qatar can leverage to promote green finance for green recovery:

Growth of SRI and ESG awareness:

Socially responsible investing (SRI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing are two of the fastest growing investing areas globally. Both are driven by the increasing awareness of social and environmental responsibility. According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, global sustainable investment reached $30.7 trillion in the five major markets at the start of 2018, a 34 percent increase in two years. These include Europe, United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Developing green finance instruments and products can attract a growing SRI investor base that seeks to align social and environmental values with its investment portfolios.

Upward trend of Islamic Finance:

According to the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), the total worth of the Islamic Financial Services Industry across its three main segments (banking, capital markets, and takaful) is estimated at $2.44 trillion in 2019, marking a year-on-year 11.4% growth in assets in US dollar terms. According to Thomson Reuters, the industry is projected to reach $3.8 trillion by 2022. Qatar is one of the global Islamic finance hubs with Islamic finance assets representing more than 20% of the local financial system’s assets. With the recent development of Islamic green finance, Qatar has the opportunity to position itself as a sustainable finance leader in the region by promoting synergies between Islamic and green finance growing markets.

Financial innovation for sustainability:

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) highlights that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take between $5 and $7 trillion, with an investment gap in developing countries of about $2.5 trillion and the additional net investment required to implement renewable energy solutions standing at $ 1.4 trillion, or about $100 billion per year on average between 2016 and 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Mitigating this funding gap requires an engaged private sector to make green investments. That is why several green instruments and products were developed across the various segments of the financial industry. These include green retail banking products, including green loans and green mortgages, green corporate and investment products, green project finance, and green venture capital and private equity, as well as green capital market instruments, like green investment funds, green bonds, and sukuk.

Integration of sustainability objectives into national strategies:

Several governments around the world have integrated sustainability objectives and green finance roadmaps into their national strategies, either through a top-down approach, whereby green finance frameworks and taxonomies are harmonized at the country level (as with China), or via market-led collaborative actions. In addition, to overcome private sector investment barriers, such as high up-front costs, long investment timelines, and higher perceived risks, several countries have put in place incentives in the form of subsidies and tax exemptions. The State of Qatar can leverage these experiences through collaborations and partnerships to develop a unique green finance model in the region

Green Sukuk: A Fast Growing Market

Green sukuk is an innovative instrument for financing green infrastructure. It has the potential to become a new asset class targeting both Islamic and socially responsible investors.

Since the issuance of the first green sukuk in 2017 in Malaysia, the market has grown significantly, with twelve issuers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates tapping the market, in addition to the Islamic Development Bank. About $7.6 billion in four currencies (EUR, IDR, MYR, and USD) was raised up to September 2020, with tenors ranging from two to 21 years. The amounts raised were allocated to green construction, energy efficiency, and clean transportation projects.

Promoting Green Finance in Qatar

Although the green finance market is still in an early stage of development in the country, the market has witnessed several initiatives by local institutions that might pave the way to the development of a more dynamic market. In September 2020, Qatar National Bank (QNB) issued the first ever green bond in Qatar, a $600 million tranche, under its MTN Program, with a maturity of five years under its established Green, Social, and Sustainability Bond Framework.

In addition, Qatar Stock Exchange (QSE) introduced an ESG Guidance in 2017 to assist listed companies wishing to incorporate ESG reporting into their existing reporting processes.

While Bond and sukuk issuance in Qatar reached $28 billion in 2019, the market is largely driven by government issuance and commercial banks for corporate issuances, with the exception of Ezdan Sukuk in 2016 and 2017. The development of green sukuk in the country with the enabling ecosystem could facilitate corporate sukuk issuance, thus enhancing market liquidity.

In conclusion, promoting a green recovery in line with the country’s economic diversification objectives and climate mitigation strategies will require the development of an enabling ecosystem for the development of green finance in Qatar. Developing a pipeline of bankable green projects at the country level, market awareness, and promoting synergies between Islamic and green finance will provide the basis for further innovation and policy action, such as green labels, frameworks, and incentives.

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