Diálogo Chino’s top stories in 2022
After the upheaval of 2020 and stuttering recovery in 2021, Latin America and the world will have hoped for a quieter, steadier year in 2022. It has been anything but.
The enduring effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought disruption to economies and supply chains, with implications for politics and the environment – disruption that has been exacerbated further by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, various extreme weather events, ever intensifying, have throughout the year laid bare Latin America’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
There have been some steps forward on the environment, however. Normal service has resumed at global conferences, such as the COP27 climate summit and COP15 biodiversity talks: offline and face-to-face once more, they have brought a mix of progress and frustration. Key elections have also seen more pro-environment candidates thrust to power, including in Brazil, Colombia and Chile, with talk of a new, green-tinged “pink tide” washing across the region.
Beyond the year’s headline-grabbing events, Diálogo Chino sought to tell a number of under-explored stories about the environment in Latin America, bringing unique insight and perspectives from across the region and beyond. Here are our editors’ favourites from the past 12 months.
Flávia Milhorance, Brazil editor
This year, I hit the road with two fellow reporters to trace the colonisation of the Amazon since the 1970s, when Brazil’s military government promoted migration to the rainforest, encouraging occupation and deforestation of land for agricultural use. Together, we produced Diálogo Chino’s first-ever Portuguese-language podcast series, Amazônia Ocupada. As a Brazilian journalist covering the environment, I’ve watched the global interest in the rainforest increase at the same pace as deforestation rates in recent years, but most news reports have focused only on the number of fires and the hectares of forest lost. This project was born in mid-2021 from a desire to go beyond the numbers, to explain how the situation has reached this critical point, one that is leading the rainforest to a tipping point.
During our trip along the BR-163 highway – a key axis of Amazon development over the decades – we spoke to gold miners, Indigenous peoples, loggers and cattle ranchers, among dozens of other voices. From the start, the idea was to bring together diverse, even opposing, views on the rainforest and its future. It ended up being a five-part series, and though only available to listen to in Portuguese, accompanying stories are available for each in English, starting from here.
Jack Lo, Andean region editor
A controversial road crosses one of the world’s best-preserved biomes
For me, this story on a road expansion project in Bolivia’s Chiquitania region is a great example of Diálogo Chino’s efforts to promote dialogue and respect for all people. Earlier this year, in partnership with Bolivian media La Región and the Environmental Information Network (RAI), we headed to the Chiquitano dry forests, one of the most biodiverse corners of the planet, and spoke with the people who live in this fragile ecosystem. We heard of their grievances and demands surrounding the construction of a World Bank-backed, Chinese-built 200-kilometre road through the forests, and looked to understand the environmental impacts it would cause.
We also heard from various specialists from government and local organisations, who gave insight into the public policies impacting the project. Accompanied by video testimonies and striking aerial shots, the investigation provided a reminder of the need to engage all stakeholders from the outset of such initiatives, particularly through consultations with affected communities. It also allowed us to shine a light on the need for infrastructure projects to improve people’s quality of life without harming the world we live in.
Alejandra Cuéllar, Mexico and Central America editor
Drought in northern Mexico brings water shortages and social unrest
Chantal Flores’ writing and Antonio Ojeda’s striking photography came together in a powerful account of how water shortages are impacting northern Mexico. For me, it was yet another eye-opener to how climate change is disproportionately impacting lower-income communities and how struggles are emerging from such shortages. The troubled Ramos River plays an important role in this story: as it struggles to provide water to the people, it is also symbolic of the state of the wider environment. Water is not just important for humans – it is what supplies plants and animals with sustenance and without it, the entire ecosystem fails. Reporting on these kinds of stories from a human angle allows us to understand climate change with empathy, and can hopefully encourage change.
Meet Zacua, Mexico’s first electric car brand
In my own reporting, I visited the offices of Zacua, the brand behind Mexico’s first electric car – and got to test-drive one! I interviewed CEO Nazareth Black and learned about the challenges that come from creating any technology in a developing country. Zacua have built their own models in a factory in Puebla that employs a large number of women on the assembly line – something that is unusual in the world of car manufacturing. Reporting on renewable energies and electric cars throughout Latin America has been enriching and challenging. Most of the technology used in renewables comes from the global north and China. But along with a number of newer brands in Latin America, Zacua is pushing for domestic and in-house technology. This is part of efforts by entrepreneurs to move away from an economic model based on commodities export to a more refined model which allows the global south to design its own possibilities. Although it is still filled with obstacles, it is a path that we will continue to cover in the coming years.
Patrick Moore, assistant editor
Even Chile’s drought-hit communities rejected ‘ecological’ constitution
The journey of Chile’s constitutional reform was a story Diálogo Chino followed closely this year, and one that provided me with a glimmer of hope in an otherwise glum year. To its supporters, the proposed new constitution was the basis for an ecologically minded state; to its detractors, it was a “fiscally irresponsible left-wing wish list”. Fronted by the young government of Gabriel Boric and drafted by a diverse citizens’ assembly, the document’s progressive ideals and the democratic process behind it were laudable in their ambition – if not in their final outcome, as 62% of voters rejected it in a September plebiscite.
Diálogo Chino later visited drought-stricken communities that may have stood to benefit from the draft’s provisions over water rights, hearing residents’ reasons for rejecting reform, and observers’ concern over disinformation that circulated in the run-up to the vote. There is still hope for change, however, with polls showing that Chileans remain keen on replacing the current Pinochet-era constitution – just not with this one – while President Boric has set the wheels in motion for a new process. As Chile prepares to do it all again, such lessons and insights from the ground will be essential.
Marina Bello, editorial assistant
How South American agriculture is adapting to climate change
I particularly like articles that zoom out to take in what is happening at the regional level, bringing in perspectives and experiences from different countries on the same issue. Given the vulnerability of Latin America and the Caribbean to the effects of climate change, regional stories often focus on problems, from droughts that wipe out crops to challenges in the energy transition in countries highly dependent on fossil fuels. That’s why I chose this article as one of my favourites of the year. It focuses on agriculture’s adaptation to climate change, and the solutions that working groups and communities have found in Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia, without losing sight of the human amid the technical. I believe that such holistic views of agriculture and the teaching of knowledge that goes beyond what is strictly “necessary” for agricultural work – for example, labour organisation and the use of technological tools, the internet and monitoring instruments – are fundamental to make the leap in scale that agriculture in the region needs in order to become more sustainable.
Fermín Koop, Southern Cone editor
Can lithium be produced with a lower environmental impact?
Throughout 2022, companies and governments have looked to scale up their lithium operations in Latin America, with numerous projects beginning extraction and processing, notably in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – the countries of the so-called “lithium triangle” that concentrate more than half of the world’s reserves of the mineral. However, as Diálogo Chino has regularly reported, lithium extraction brings a wide array of social and environmental challenges, mainly regarding water use. Javier Lewkowicz’s story asks a vital question, at a time when lithium demand continues to grow: whether it's feasible to produce lithium more sustainably. Javier reports on and explains alternative production methods that are starting to be used across the region, which suggest a possible way forward for the industry. Most of the methods are, however, still in the laboratory phase and would need to be scaled up in order to make a significant difference in the current landscape of lithium production.
Juan Ortiz, editorial assistant
Can Latin America’s new ‘pink tide’ turn green?
From 2023, the five largest economies in Latin America will be governed by the left, and there are expectations that a new “pink tide” across the region may bring more alignment on environmental issues. In the case of Colombia, new president Gustavo Petro has pledged to promote an energy transition to decarbonise the nation’s economy, to bury proposals to exploit gas reserves by fracking, and to increase conservation of the Amazon and marine ecosystems, among other initiatives. From Colombia, journalist Laura Natália Cruz Cañon gave an excellent summary of the new government’s environmental goals.
Next door in Brazil, the return to power of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva represents a break with the policies of destruction of Jair Bolsonaro’s government. But while more environmentally friendly leadership may be back, pressure from the country’s big agribusiness is also increasing. In an October interview, Marina Silva – who is tipped to return to the helm of the Ministry of the Environment, a position she held in the previous Lula government – told Diálogo Chino of her belief that Brazil will regain its position as an international environmental leader. The signs were promising at the COP27 conference, where Lula received a “rockstar” welcome. But when it takes office in January, the new government will face huge challenges, to fight the advance of deforestation and fires in the Amazon, illegal mining on Indigenous lands, and the attacks of an agribusiness sector ever more loyal to the defeated Bolsonaro.