Two Wheels to the World

Pedal power is getting new respect worldwide, as concerns about climate change and hard economic times make bicycling increasingly popular. In Paris, “bike sharing” gives riders access to thousands of two-wheelers around the city, a service that is also gaining momentum in Mexico, Brazil and Canada. The women’s blog even calls bike sharing “the new public transportation.” Bicycling is also getting a big push from Asian governments. South Korea’s president wants to make his country “a bicycle heaven,” The Korea Times reports, while Time Magazine chimes in with news that Taiwan’s leader hopes to create “a cycling paradise” in his island nation.

Banks Take Aim at Student Loan Plan

Opposition is emerging to President Barack Obama’s plan to take private banks out of the student loan business. Student indebtedness has grown to an average of nearly $23,000 per individual, and student loans remain a lucrative business for U.S. banks, earning $85 billion annually, according to news reports. The White House plan would cut out the middleman and let students borrow directly from the government, with the hope of making more money available for loans, while saving an estimated $94 billion over the next decade. Citigroup has already begun an e-mail campaign urging its borrowers to write Congress to oppose the plan, notes Talking Points Memo. And executives for Sallie Mae, the biggest provider of student loans, said if the plan is adopted as proposed, an undetermined number of banking jobs could be lost.

Brazilian Blacks Assume Majority, Not Equity

Brazil’s African-descended citizens now stand at 49.6 percent of the population, edging out their European-descended brethren by .2 percent, but lacking proportional access to education and food. Twenty percent of Brazilian blacks are more likely to be illiterate, and have to work as much as 76 hours for their “basic food basket,” compared to a 6 percent illiteracy rate and 54 hours of work for basic food needs for Caucasians, reports Merco Press. In 1888 Brazil became the last country in South America to abolish slavery. President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has proposed new quotas for blacks in universities, in an effort to drive social and economic integration. –Brittany Owens/
“Black population becomes the majority in Brazil”
MercoPress, April 25, 2009

China Comes Calling in Latin America

China’s search for natural resources is taking it to Latin America, and bringing considerable economic clout at a time when U.S. trade with the region is steadily declining. In Peru, China has locked in control of copper production with its multibillion-dollar purchase of a mountain that holds most of Peru’s copper reserves, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Venezuela, meanwhile, has sealed a new agreement that will increase crude oil exports to China to one million barrels daily by 2012, reports Other Chinese investments in Latin America include $1 billion for a hydroelectric plant in Ecuador and a $10 billion loan to Brazil’s national oil company, The New York Times reports. China is now Latin America’s second largest trading partner, with trade increasing by almost 40 percent in 2008, up to $140 billion, according to China Daily, while a Foreign Policy magazine essay states that China is signing currency swap agreements worth more than $100 billion.

'Blood Minerals' Taint Electronic Gadgets

A new report by a Washington-based advocacy group links sexual violence in Africa and electronics manufacturing. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold are mined in illegal operations, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then sent abroad to be used in electronic gadgets such as iPods, cell phones and laptops. Local rebel factions in the DRC trade these “conflict minerals” for weapons, and routinely terrorize residents in contested regions, according to the Enough Project’s findings. This includes looting, burning of property and ever-increasing sexual violence against women and girls. According to the study, more than 1,000 rapes are reported in the DRC monthly — the highest rate in the world.

Bartering Begets Business in Difficult Times

From Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo to Chicago and Seattle, bartering and swap meets are back in style, as businesses and individuals look for new ways to get what they want in a cash-strapped world. In Argentina, bartering is a 14-year-old custom, an outgrowth of another time when the peso went bust, according to a report in Inter Press Service. Argentines have formed 500 barter clubs, where people go to exchange everything from home-cooked meals and home repairs to a medical or dental exam. Corporate giant Bayer AG is taking a different approach in neighboring Brazil, where it is accepting coffee, corn, cotton and soy from farmers in lieu of cash as payment for agrochemicals. A company spokesman told Reuters that Bayer considers bartering “a good way” of doing business in uncertain economic times.

Climate Change's First Toll: Women

Officials say women in developing countries are taking the brunt of the hardships created by climate change. Speaking at the Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado, government officials from Africa, the Middle East and South America described a variety of problems, reports the Aspen Daily News. In Nicaragua, droughts have forced women, who traditionally gather water and firewood accompanied by their daughters, to travel farther from home, keeping young women from school. Mozambique’s coastline is eroding and turning to desert, sending women farther to find fresh water, sometimes in competition with wild animals such as elephants. Advocates hope renewable energy projects and education will both help improve conditions, the newspaper reports.

Rocky Road for Andean Free Trade Pact

Peru, Colombia and Ecuador are holding a second round of free-trade talks with the European Union, after but without the support of neighboring Bolivia. Latin American Press, a nonprofit outlet with a focus on human rights, reports that Bolivia left the talks in November, along with Ecuador, which rejoined negotiations in January. Critics said that E.U. wants patent and intellectual property rules that would favor European pharmaceutical companies, raising prices for drugs and increasing the wait for generic drugs to hit the market. –Julia Hengst/
“Trade pact threatens integration”
Latin American Press, April 1, 2009

Wal-Mart Likes the Latin Flavor

Wal-Mart plans to open new stores in nine Central and South American countries this year, reports the Latin Business Chronicle. Experts say the global recession is helping Wal-Mart make new inroads because its low prices are attractive to consumers when budgets are tight. While other companies are reporting low growth or no growth, Wal-Mart’s earnings topped $13 billion in 2008 — up 5. 2 percent over the previous year, with “strong performance” in Brazil and Mexico. This is prompting Wal-Mart to invest more of its dollars south of the border — with additional stores in Argentina, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile and Puerto Rico.

Herbicides Come to Southwest Border Fight

In an effort to fight illegal immigration, the United States Border Patrol plans to spray a chemical herbicide on tall plants near the Texas-Mexico border. The Carrizo cane is an invasive plant that grows up to 30 feet high and provides a cover for illegal border crossers, thieves and smugglers, according to the Houston Chronicle. Helicopters will spray the plants “until all plant life in the area is poisoned.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Border Patrol say the herbicide imazapyr is safe for animals, but critics say the chemical’s safety is questionable and could threaten the water supply of towns near the river. Government agents asked Nuevo Laredo’s water utility to turn off their water pumps before the spraying, reports El Paso’s Newspaper Tree.