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Cuenca High Life
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The number of tourists visiting Cuenca has risen 276% since 2008, the highest rate of growth in Ecuador.

Patricio Miller, president of the Chamber of Tourism of Azuay Province, says the increase is due in large part to strong promotional campgaigns by several government agencies. He also says that international media coverage of Cuenca has put the city in the spotlight, making it one of the most attractive destinations in Ecuador.

The Ministry of Tourism has sponsored tourism exhibits at the world’s top tourism fairs, he says, including the World Travel Market in London, Fitur in Madrid, as well as fairs in Berlin, Brazil and Costa Rica.

According to the Cuenca Municipal Tourism Foundation, since 2008 the number of tourists visiting Cuenca has grown from 300,000 to 830,000 annually. In 2013, 220,000 of those tourists were foreigners. Miller said the increase was especially dramatic among Europeans, especially Germans and citizens of Scandinavian countries.

The Azuay Association of Hoteliers reports that more than 20 new hotels have opened in the last year, bringing the number of hotel rooms to more than 7,000 in the city. They say that three larger hotels that are currently under construction will add more capacity as well as fill the need for five-star accommodations.

Transit agency may regulate taxi fares nationally

Although taxi owners unions in several cities, including Cuenca, are pressing for a fare increase, the National Transit Agency (ANT) says that technical studies are needed to determine a nationwide fare schedule.

Deputy director of the National Transit Agency (ANT), Gustavo Hinojosa, says that his agency has not approved new rates for any city and that it won’t until studies are completed.

Taxi unions reacted to Hinojosa, saying that they had been told that new fare schedules would be approved once meters are in operation in the nation’s taxis. Last week was the deadline for meter use throughout the country with the excpetion of Cuenca, were meters will be required by May 31.

Jorge Calderon, president of the National Federation of Transport Taxi Operators (Fedotaxi) insists that studies have already been completed and that there is no need for a delay in raising fares. ”We were under the impression that we had an agreement with ANT on the issue and there is no reason to delay implementation of new rates. The current schedule was developed 11 years ago and it’s time to adjust it for inflation.’

President dedicates new education university

President Rafael Correa helped dedicate the new National University of Education (UNAE) in Azoguez on Monday. The university, which opened with 24 students in March, is intended to improve teacher education in Ecuador from the elementary to the university level. UNAE is one of four national universities that the government calls “millennium institutions.”

According to Correa and Ecuador Minister of Education Augusto Espinosa, the university will have 2,000 students by September and will include an international faculty.

According to Espinosa, UNAE is intended to bring Ecuador’s educational system up to international standards. “This institution will lead the way to making our education programs not just the best in Latin America but also competitive with all programs around the world.”


By Alyson Penn

"Tell me, what is your favorite brand of watches? Your favorite brand of chocolate? Your favorite brand of champagne?"

"Now, what is your favorite brand of roses?"

It is with these questions that Alejandro Henao piqued my interest when introducing me to Sisaluna, his direct-order Ecuadorian rose company, which officially launches in the U.S. April 23. Expecting my stunted response, he goes on to explain that there simply are no branded roses. At least, until now.

"What we want is to make our clients proud to buy our Sisaluna roses," Henao said. "So tomorrow, when somebody gives you roses, they’re not giving you roses, they’re give you Sisaluna roses, right? There’s a whole concept, but we want to back it up with a social commitment and responsibility."

One year ago, Henao and his business partner, Luis Armendaris, came up with the idea of starting their own farm-direct, socially and economically responsible rose company in their hometown of Quito, Ecuador. Looking to partner with a Ecuadorian charity, the friends collaborated with People Helping People Ecuador (PHP), an American-based organization that is dedicated to the welfare of people of the Andean region.

"We’ve been asked before to attach our names to things and we’ve always said 'no,'" said Bonnie Lunt, director of PHP Ecuador. "What I said to them was that I needed to see the plantation. I was really grateful when I saw it and it was green, and they didn’t use harsh chemicals or children. This plantation was like a breath of fresh air for us. It’s a win-win for all of us."

Sisaluna plans to become the first e-commerce flower firm that is "seriously committed" to its surrounding communities, with part of its proceeds going directly to PHP, which has built schools and health-care centers in the region. Additionally, Henao says the company's farms comply with all the local and international regulations regarding chemicals and labor — there are no child workers and 72% of employees are single moms.

Sisaluna prides itself on a top-quality product. Henao explained that Ecuador's diverse ecology and location in the Andes at 10,000-feet above sea level allows for a superior rose — the world's best.

The company also cuts its roses later in their lives than many Ecuadorian rose growers who cater to the American market, which means they last anywhere from 10 to 15 days, compared to an average of 4 to 6 days for flowers that are cut earlier.

It's known as the Russian style of growing and cutting roses. "The Russians love roses," said Lunt. "Americans believe the rose has to be cut early and at the bud stage. But if you wait until the rose is opened a little bit further, the rose is stronger and it lasts longer."

But immaculate care and quality doesn't exactly come cheap. Sisaluna sells its roses in bundles of 50 for $150, including 5-6 day shipping (they are only available by direct order on Sisaluna's website, and delivered by UPS).

That may seem steep compared to two-dozen-for-$10 deals at the corner bodegas of New York City, but compared to other direct-order businesses like 1-800-Flowers which charges more than $200 for two dozen of their "best" roses — it doesn't seem so unreasonable after all. This is, in part, because Sisaluna cuts out the middle man, selling directly to consumers.

And those bodega flowers never last more than a day or two.

Sisaluna goes to serious lengths to ensure its quality. "The security at these plantations is intense; you have to be screened really carefully," said Lunt. "Also, a lot of these plantations have secret hybrid roses that they’re processing. They’re very careful not to let anybody near those buildings because they’re terrified of any kind of germs or diseases. Just one bad bacteria can wipe out a whole plantation, and that’s happened before."

The company's commitment to abide by child labor laws is also a major step. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that around one in a dozen stems sold in the U.S. were cut by child laborers in Ecuador, which supplies the bulk of America's long-stem roses. The Atlantic also cited a 2000 report claiming that 80% of the workers in Ecuador's flower industry were children.
"We want to break that label that the floral culture industry has — that they use pesticides, that they go against the environment, that they hire kids, that they don’t pay for incomes," said Henao.

Henao said he eventually hopes to revolutionize the whole culture surrounding roses. While he initially expects surges in orders around Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, he predicted the demand would eventually stabilize as flower fans re-order year-round. He forecasts that the compay will sell around 700 boxes, or 35,000 roses, a month.

"Sisalunas are roses that enhance your world, your life, and make you happy and proud that you’re buying the best roses in the world," says Haneo."That’s our slogan."

Credit: Photo caption: Distinctive packaging is a highlight of the Sisaluna brand.

Editor's note: Cuenca's Easter soup, fanesca, is considered by many to be the best in Latin America and it is a tradition among Cuencanos to have at least one bowl of it during Holy Week. It is considered so good, in fact, that it was the cover story for New Yorker magazine in 2005. Although it has traditionally been served only during Holy Week, many mercado food courts vendors and and restaurants have been dishing it up since last weekend. After this week, though, it's wait till next year.

It’s a busy time of year for Juan Diaz at Cuenca’s 10 de Agosto Mercado on Calle Larga. Although he usually helps his wife, Rosa, manage the family vegetable stall, in the weeks before Easter he is busy assembling the ingredients for fanesca, the traditional Ecuadorian soup served during Holy Week.”

“I have more than 30 customers and they depend on me to find everything they need,” says Diaz, who visits other vendors in the market, collecting the needed items. “It takes hours to find all of the ingredients so I do it for them and save them the time.”

Among the ingredients Diaz collects and puts in paper sacks, each bearing the hand-written name of a customer, are bacalao seco, or salted cod, used for the soup base, beans, peas and a variety of grains, including lupine, fava, lima beans, quinoa, lintels and corn. He also collects, to individual order, a variety of other ingredients including squash, pumpkin, potatoes, plantains and eggs. Most of customers, he says, buy their own herbs and spices.

Diaz emphasizes the point that a true fanesca must contain 12 grains, representing the 12 apostles of Christ. “We can never forget the meaning of the soup and that is about the Holy Week and Easter,” he says.

As important as finding all the ingredients, it is the preparation of fanesca that determines its true measure. Although it can be made in as little as 24 hours, conissoures say the best takes days. The cod must be soaked several times in milk or water over a two or three day period. The grains are often soaked and pre-cooked and some require husking. The process is a labor of love passed down through generations, and each family has its own tradition of preparation.

In Cuenca, as in most of Ecuador, fanesca is served as a family meal on Good Friday, in the early afternoon. It is the main course and is often accompanied by mashed potatoes, salad and dessert. Fanesca easily rivals the Christmas Eve dinner as the most important meal of the year.
Who makes the best fanesca?

Although arguments have raged for years about which part of Ecuador has the best fanesca, Cuencana Rosa Vintimilla, author of “Fanesca de Fanescas,” says the idea of a competition is pointless. “There is no such thing as an authentic fanesca,” says Vintimilla. “There are many recipes and most of them, if they are prepared properly, are very good. Ingredients and tastes vary from one part of the country to the other so all fanescas have their unique qualities.”

She also points out that opinions about fanesca are generally a family matter. “Each family has its own fanesca and the tradition has been passed down from mother to daughter for many years,” says Vintimilla. “If you ask me who made the best fanesca, I will always tell you that it was my grandmother.”

Cuenca’s fanesca attracted international attention in 2005 when it was featured prominently in a New Yorker article by Calvin Trillin, associate editor for the magazine and columnist for the New York Times and the Nation. Trillin, who has visited Cuenca on several occasions, wrote a personal memoir about his quest for Cuenca’s best fanesca during a visit where he brushed up on his Spanish. The literary equivalent of television food celebrity Anthony Bourdain, and the author of many books and articles on food around the world, Trillin adopted a keen interest not only in eating the famous soup but understanding its origins.

He wrote: “My first trip to one of Cuenca’s markets made it obvious that I was about as close to the source of fanesca’s ingredients as I could get without living in the middle of a bean patch. All the vegetables and spices required—corn, for instance, and fava beans and a couple of kinds of squash—grow in the area, and some of them apparently don’t make it as far as Guayaquil, which is only thirty minutes away by air. That may be because the distribution system seems to consist largely of indigenous women who come to the market from the countryside, many of them in the bright-colored flared skirts and high-crowned Panama hats that can make even a small woman of some years look rather, well, zippy.”

Where to find fanesca

For those who are not Cuenca natives, restaurants are the logical fanesca option during Holy Week. Although some serve fanesca the entire week, most offer it only after Wednesday. Where to go? Rosa Vintimilla recommends Villa Rosa, El Jardin and La Maiz in El Centro, and Rancho Chileana near the airport on Av. España.

For a more colorful and authentic option, consider eating your soup in the food court of one of the city´s ten indigenous mercados. Several vendors at the 10 de Agosto market, where Juan Diaz gathers ingredients for Cuenca families, are known for serving up a top-notch brew.

Ultimately, Diaz agrees with Vintimilla that the quality of the soup is in the mouth of the beholder. “I do my job to find the things that go into the soup. Then, it is up to the cooks to make it good.”

Photo captions: Rosa Vintimilla's authoritative text on fanesca (available in local bookstores), and the 2005 New Yorker cover.

Ecuador Environmentalists say they have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the question of whether the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon should be opened to further oil exploration.

They ay 755,147 people had signed the petition for a national vote, well above the 585,000 required by Ecuadorian law.

Since late February, referendum supporters, or Yasunidos, as they are called, have been out in force collecting signitures. Although they covered the entire country, they concentrated on the large cities of Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.

President Rafael Correa has promised that any oil earnings from the park would be used for poverty alleviation and that oil production will cause minimal environmental damage.

But critics say one of the world's most biodiverse areas could be severely damaged.

"With these signatures we are certain that the popular consultation vote will go ahead," Carla Espin, a Yasunidos told reporters in Quito.

The signatures, which came from as far away as Australia, Mexico and Europe, still need to be validated by the Ecuadorian electoral authorities. Government officials say there are questions about whether the wording of the petition will be acceptable as well as about the legitimacy of the signatures collected.

It would then be up to the Constitutional Court to authorize a referendum on the issue.

Limited oil exploitation has been taking place in parts of Yasuní, which covers nearly 10,000 sq km (3,860 sq miles), since the 1970s.

But last year President Rafael Correa abandoned a conservation plan that would have seen rich nations pay Ecuador not to drill in previously untouched parts of the park.

Correa said the initiative had attracted only a fraction of the $3.6 billion it had aimed to raise, leaving Ecuador with no choice but go ahead with drilling. Oil is the country's main export.

There were protests in Quito against his decision.

The park supports a huge variety of wildlife, including unique species of birds, monkeys and amphibians.

It is also home to the Huaorani and other indigenous people who had virtually no contact with the outside world until recent decades.
Yasuni oilfields hold an estimated 846 million barrels of crude, 20 percent of Ecuador's reserves.

Credit: BBC News,; Photo captions: Yasuni and area map

Cuenca’s Foundation Holidays kicked off officially Thursday night with a parade on Av. Loja. Police estimate that about 10,000 turned out for the event.

The holidays mark the 457th anniversary of Cuenca’s founding by the Spanish. In November, there’s an even larger celebration as the city commemorates the date when the Spanish were kicked out of town. “In Cuenca, we take any occasion for a party,” said Fernando Ortiz, member of the committee that stages the foundation celebrtion.

The event has been in full swing in some sections of town since Thursday morning as another parade snaked its way through the historic district, near the cathedral, and crafts and food vendors set up booths in city plazas and along the Rio Tomebamba. A third parade, this one of high school student bands and dancers, steps off today at 10 a.m. from Parque San Blas, heading up Calle Simon Bolivar to Parque Calderon.

Historians have issued their annual statement pointing out that Cuenca was actually established long before 1557. “We should never forget that our real ancestors, the Cañari, established a settlement in the valley more than 1,500 years ago,” says retired history professor Juan Gonzalez. “In fact, there were large groups living in this area as long ago as 4,000 years." Cuenca was called Guapondeleg when it was the center of the Cañari nation.  The Incas, in their 75-year reign in the city, called it Tomebamba.

Dozens of city parks, plazas and markets are presenting live entertainment, food and crafts through Sunday, April 12.

The municipal tourism office estimates that 30,000 visitors are in town for the festivities.

Photo caption: Spectators lined Calle Simon Bolivar Thursday morning to watch one of several parades in the historic district.

Editor’s note: The follow is an op-ed article Ecuador President Rafael Correa wrote for the Boston Globe. The article was entitled ‘Real freedom requires justice’ appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the Globe.

By Rafael Correa

To understand what is happening politically across Latin America, one needs only to look at the history of the United States. Despite its status as the oldest democracy in the world, the United States took centuries to fulfill the principles of equality and freedom embodied in its founding documents. Indeed, the belief that the United States was in fact a formal democracy existed even while suffrage was the sole province of rich white men, and while African Americans were enslaved for a century and subjected to brutal racism and segregation for another century after their emancipation.

We find ourselves faced with a similar paradox in Latin America today. When the Latin American elites — including their corporate-owned media — speak of freedom and equality, they speak only for themselves. Like America’s Founding Fathers who preached equality yet themselves were slave owners, Latin American elites have left out large swaths of the populations, leaving them poor, disaffected and disenfranchised. In many of our nascent democracies, “fundamental” rights are the province of the powerful.

Definitions of freedom and justice vary depending on where one sits, and for the 164 million in Latin America living in poverty — and the 68 million still in extreme poverty — there is neither justice nor freedom not true democracy. For this poverty is not the result of lack of resources, but of inequality bred from a perverse power structure where historically a few dominate the many. This structure has enabled the wealthiest 20 percent to get 47 percent of total income in Latin America, while the bottom 20 percent only get 5 percent, according to United Nations statistics.

During our seven years of governing Ecuador, my party has led the movement to end this paradox by breaking the monopoly of the elites and democratizing our political process to truly be by, and for, the people. We have invested our resources smartly and for the majority of our people, especially the poorest. For instance, we have the largest ratio of public investment to GDP in Latin America (about 15 percent), while total public debt is just 23 percent of GDP, thanks to a tripling of tax revenue achieved through efficient and well-enforced tax collection — not tax increases. This massive public investment has resulted in historical transformations in education, health, childcare, roads, ports, airports, telecommunications, power generation, justice system, and security.

The result is that Ecuador today leads Latin America in reducing social and economic inequality, and we are among the top three in poverty reduction. Ecuador is one of the three most dynamic Latin American economies, with an average growth from of 4.2 percent from 2007 to 2013 and the lowest unemployment rate in the region (4.1 percent). According to the 2012 Human Development Report of the United Nations, during the period 2007-2012 — which coincides with our government —Ecuador is one of the three countries in the world with the greatest upward mobility in terms of development.

These achievements are already known as the “Ecuadorian miracle, and the most obvious consequence has been political stability. Since 2006, our party has won ten consecutive elections, and we have the highest approval ratings in the continent, with about 80 percent. Formal democracy has been achieved, but more importantly so too has “real” democracy — the one that provides access to rights, equal opportunities, and decent living conditions.

When it comes to human rights, Ecuador is one of seven of the 34 countries on the continent that has subscribed to absolutely all of the inter-American human rights conventions. As with all genuine rule of law, we pursue crimes, not specific people. But by ending the preferences and advantages historically given to select groups, for the first time everyone is now equal before the law and must be held accountable to the same standards of justice. Not surprisingly, we face fierce opposition from these same groups.

Many US politicians do not like it when leftist governments, which constitute the majority of South America’s governments, achieve such success. The United States is the most powerful country on the planet, and one of the most successful in the history of mankind, but there is no “universal” path to achieving freedom and justice.

I admire America’s extraordinary ability to innovate, the fighting spirit of its citizens and its prestigious universities and educational system. There is plenty of space to collaborate in the areas of science, technology, trade and others within the framework of a bilateral relationship that should be based on mutual respect and recognition of our own interests.

But for those who want to create a monopoly on the definition of sublime concepts such as “freedom,” they should well understand that there can be no freedom without justice. In Latin America, where not just economic but political and legal inequalities plague our continent, seeking justice is the only way to achieve true freedom.

These problems are political, and cannot be solved without addressing our social priorities: the elites or everyone, capital or human beings, the market or society? Today, those of us who try to transform paper democracies in Latin America into true democracies are subversively attacked by those whose status and power is being challenged. These individuals claim their freedom of expression is being denied, when in fact they seek impunity for media to manipulate the truth. They make accusations of disrespect for their human rights, because for once the law applies equally to everybody. And they cry of dictatorship and authoritarianism, because they cannot bring the government to submit to their whims and interests.

As an economist educated in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, I had the opportunity to live four years in this wonderful country. For this reason I know that many Americans consider Abraham Lincoln the best president in history, even if some of his contemporaries derided him as a “tyrant,” “despot,’’ “fanatic,” and “crazy” for his noble fight to abolish slavery.

There is much to learn from Lincoln’s example, namely that must equality and freedom must trump popularity and expediency.

“All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those words were written when the United States was an aspiring democracy. In Ecuador and across Latin America, we also hold these truths to be self-evident, and we must make them a reality not just for certain people or at some future time, but right now and for everybody.

Credit: The Boston Globe,; Photo caption: Rafael Correa

In a speech that echoed an op-ed article published Wednesday in the Boston Globe, Ecuador President Rafael Correa told an audience at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Wednesday night that the economic situation in Ecuador has improved rapidly over the last few years, but is still inhibited by economic, political, and legal inequalities.

Although Kennedy School of Government Dean David T. Ellwood ’75 introduced Correa as a controversial figure, the Ecuadorian president's 50-minute speech, which was delivered in English, avoided most of the controversial topics, such as human rights and freedom of speech infringement, which have caused some U.S. citizens to view his presidency as corrupt and authoritarian.

Audience members nevertheless used the 30-minute question and answer segment at the end of the speech to inquire about Correa’s policies.

When a Kennedy School student in the audience asked Correa about Ecuador’s increasing infringement on the freedom of the press, Correa responded, “that is not true, I don’t know who tells you that.”

“Come to our country,” he added. “You will see yourself.”

Most of Correa’s speech highlighted the improving situation in Ecuador, including a sharp decrease in poverty levels and increase in higher education. The event began with a short tourism advertisement highlighting the natural beauties of Ecuador with the message, “All you need is Ecuador. Ecuador is all you need.”

Correa took pride in distancing himself from the presidents that led Ecuador before the new constitution was written and put into place soon after Correa took office in 2007.

Citing the fact that Ecuador went through seven presidents in 10 years, Correa emphasized that the current situation in Ecuador is extremely different than it was a decade ago.

“Ecuador was an example of everything that could go wrong with a country,” Correa said. “Today, Ecuador is one of the most distinguished democracies in Latin America.”

According to Correa, democracy is in full effect in Ecuador today.

“Democracy has been freely established in Ecuador. Not only a democracy in the formal sense, but real democracy in terms of people’s access to rights, equal opportunities, and dignified conditions,” Correa said. “This is the so-called Ecuadorian miracle.”

Correa said that it is now time to move Ecuador and its surrounding countries past the inequalities that have been of serious concern over the last several decades, citing a wide disparity in wealth.

“In Latin America, where not just economic but political and legal inequalities plague our continent, seeking justice is the only way to achieve true freedom,” Correa said.

About 1,100 people entered the lottery on the Institute of Politics’ website to attend Correa’s address, but the room was capped at its capacity of 750, according to IOP Director of Communications Esten Perez.

Correa was educated in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, and referred fondly in his speech to his time in the United States as “four of the happiest years of my life.”

He is currently at the beginning of his tour of the Northeast that will include stops at MIT and Yale. He is traveling with a large contingent of ministry and cabinet members including Nathalie Cely, Ecuador’s Ambassador to the United States, all of whom were present at the forum on Wednesday.

Credit: The Harvard Crimson,; Photo caption: Correa speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy Center.

Cuenca taxi owners and unions have been granted a 51-day extension for the installation and use of taxi meters. They had originally demanded 90 days. Under a new scheduled announced yesterday meters must be in use in all of Cuenca’s 3,600 taxis by May 31. Police will begin ticketing those not in compliance on June 8.

Transit authority manager Dario Tapia also announced that the meters would be set to current fares and that when new fares are agreed to, meters will be adjusted. “We have to use the rates we have in place now since we have no idea when a new rate schedule will be approved.”

Messiah Vicuña, secretary of the Taxi Drivers Union, said his members will abide by the new schedule but objected to using current fares. "Those rates are 14 years old and it seems fair to me that we wait to have rates that reflect the economic situation today," he said.

According to Tapia, even with the current fare schedule, fares will be slightly higher because time as well as distance will be calculated by the meters. “Idle time,” such as time spent stalled in traffic or at a red light will be charged at three cents for every 43 seconds.

Under the new arrangements, all meters will start at 46 cents. Minimum fares will be $1.14 during the day and $1.36 at night.

Cathedral repair fundraising campaign begins

Cuenca Archbishop, Luis Cabrera, will inaugurate the “Dollar for the Cathedral” fundraising drive on Saturday in hopes of collecting the $870,746 needed for roof repairs to the iconic 120-year-old church.

“This a great campaign that aims to reach the people who value this fabulous sanctuary. This is the most important structure in Cuenca and we believe that the people will come to our assistance,” the Archbishop said.

Cabrera said that the campaign will also reach out to Ecuadorians living in the U.S. and Spain. “Many of our migrants are from Cuenca and I believe that they will want to help too,” he said.

Water damage from the cathedral roof is visible on the ceiling. Much of the damage is the result of lack of proper sealing at the time of construction. Fungi and lichens growing in ceiling cracks have added to the problem, an architectural study by the University of Cuenca reported.

After the announcement last July that the Ecuador would end its LP gas subsidy, the government has emphasized the advantages of electricity over gas. It will be more efficient, save lives and cause less harm to the environment, the government has said.

President Rafael Correa and Energy Minister Esteban Albornoz, among others, have touted the electric advantages and pointed out that eight hydroelectric plants currently under construction will make Ecuador a net exporter of electricity by 2018. "We will have all the electricity we need," said Correa.

In the past two weeks, however, the government has reversed course, saying they only meant that households should change from gas to electric cooktops. The about-face followed criticism from energy experts that the country's electric infrastructure cannot manage a major surge in electric usage until major upgrades are completed.

“We never intended for families to change to heating water and drying clothes with electricity,” says Albornoz. “Gas is still more effective for these things. We also do not want to encourage people to buy more electric appliances. This is not the intent of the changes we are making.”

Albornoz adds that he regrets any minunderstanding created by government announcements.

“The original purpose of the gas subsidy when it was created in 2003 was to provide energy for cooking, nothing more,” he says. “It was also intended to reduce the air pollution created by many people cooking with charcoal and wood, and it has been successful in doing this.”  

Several members of Albornoz's staff are making presentations around the country, making the case, with visual aids, that gas will still be more efficient for heating water and drying clothes than electricy. “It costs about 20% more to heat water with electricity than it does with gas,” Albornoz says. “It would be foolish to change from gas for this.”

Fernando Salinas, President of the Pichincha College of Electrical Engineers, is one who suggests the country could face power shortages if there is too much demand for electricity. “We need to move slowly in this project and the point needs to be clearly made that the changes we are making are small, limited to kitchen cooktops.” Salinas says that even if Ecuador produces enough energy to support a large increase in demand, the power system and wiring may not be ready to handle the load.

According the government, elimination of the gas subsidy will save $800 million a year.

Photo caption: Former Ecuador Minister of Engery Esteban Albornoz.

Latin America is not taking the new global agreement to limit mercury emissions seriously say a number of environmental advocates.

After the European Union banned exports of mercury in 2011 and the United States did so in 2013, trade in the metal shot up in the region.

“Mexico’s exports have tripled in the last few years,” Ibrahima Sow, an environmental specialist in the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Climate Change and Chemicals Team, told Tierramérica. “And activities like the extraction of gold from recycled electronic goods are on the rise.”

The global treaty on mercury was adopted in October 2013. It includes a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing mines, control measures for air emissions, and the international regulation of the informal sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining. 

But of the 97 countries around the world that have signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury – including 18 from Latin America and the Caribbean – only one, the United States, has ratified it, and 49 more must do so in order for it to go into effect.

Minamata is the Japanese city that gave its name to the illness caused by severe mercury poisoning. The disease, a neurological syndrome, was first identified there in the 1950s.

It was eventually discovered that it was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater from a chemical plant run by the Chisso Corporation. The local populace suffered from mercury poisoning after eating fish and shellfish containing a build-up of this neurotoxic, carcinogenic chemical.

The contamination occurred between 1932 and 1968. As of 2001, 2,265 victims had been officially recognised; at least 100 of them died as a result of the disease.

In Latin America, mercury is used in artisanal gold mining and hospital equipment. And emissions are produced by the extraction, refining, transport and combustion of hydrocarbons; thermoelectric plants; and steelworks.

It is also smuggled in a number of countries.

“It is hard to quantify the illegal imports,” Colombia’s deputy minister of the environment and sustainable development, Pablo Vieira, told Tierramérica. “Everyone knows that artisanal and small-scale mining uses smuggled mercury, mainly coming in from Peru and Ecuador, although hard data is not available.”

According to Colombia’s authorities, the mercury is smuggled through the jungle in the country’s remote border zones.

Mercury Watch, an international alliance which keeps a global database, estimated Latin America’s mercury emissions at 526 tons in 2010, with Colombia in the lead, accounting for 180 tonnes.

In an assessment published in 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that mercury emissions caused by human activities reached 1,960 tonnes in 2010, with artisanal mining as the main source (727 tonnes), followed by the burning of coal, principally from power generation and industrial use.

Artisanal gold mining is practised in at least a dozen Latin American countries, largely in the Andean region and the Amazon rainforest, including Ecuador, but in Central America as well, UNEP reports.

Some 500,000 small-scale gold miners drive the legal or illegal demand for mercury.

Mexico and Peru have mercury deposits, but there is no formal primary mercury mining in the region. The extraction is secondary, because the mercury tends to be mixed with other minerals, or comes from the recycling of mercury already extracted and used for other purposes.

The biggest producers are Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, while the main consumers and legal importers are Peru, Colombia and Panama.

In 2012 Mexico, Argentina and Colombia headed the regional list of exporters of mercury and products containing the metal, according to Mercury Watch.

Mercury is naturally present in certain rocks, and can be found in the air, soil and water as a result of industrial emissions.
Bacteria and other microorganisms convert mercury to methylmercury, which can accumulate in different animal species, especially fish.

Mining industry laws in Bolivia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Honduras ban the use of mercury.

And last year Colombia passed a law that would phase out mercury in mining over the next five years and in industry over the next 10 years.

Since November 2013, the Peruvian Congress has also been debating a draft law to eliminate mercury in mining and replace it in industrial activities.

According to UNEP, there were a total of 11 chlor-alkali plants operating with mercury technology in seven countries in the region in 2012. But several of the factories plan to adopt mercury-free technologies by 2020.

“The mercury content in products, the replacement of mercury, and the temporary storage and final disposal of mercury waste are significant aspects of mercury management,” Raquel Lejtreger, undersecretary in Uruguay’s ministry of housing, territorial planning and environment, told Tierramérica.

Uruguay imports products that contain mercury. But a mercury cell chlor-alkali plant operating in the South American country plans to convert to mercury-free technology, although financing to do so is needed.

GEF has provided funds to Uruguay and other countries in the region for the negotiation of the global treaty on mercury and for the adoption of alternative, mercury-free technologies. But there is still a long way to go.

Credit: InterPress Service,; Photo caption: Artisanal miners in Peru.

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