Biofuel debate and global warming hold center stage at EU-Latin America summit

Cabinet ministers and high-ranking government officials from 57 countries are in Lima, meeting behind closed doors for the Fifth European Union-Latin America and Caribbean Summit to find common ground on poverty reduction, free trade and a coordinated defense against global climate change.

Sixteen heads of state are expected to arrive by Friday to sign the Declaration of Lima — a document that will likely be forged from a hotly contested debate over biofuels and their link to skyrocketing global food prices and deforestation.

Many Latin American leaders from across the ideological spectrum — including Peru’s avid free-market President Alan García and Venezuela’s leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez — agree that conversion of croplands for biofuels are forcing prices for rice, corn and wheat beyond the reach of millions of poor people in the region.

The EU is already under increasing pressure from its own scientific community to abandon a target set last year for fuel sold at European pumps to contain 10 percent biofuels by 2020.

Setting the stage for the summit is a scientific report prepared by The Andean Community, offering a devastating analysis of the effects of global climate change on the region. Fast-melting glaciers threaten to deprive 40 million people of water for human consumption, hydroelectric generation and agriculture by 2020, with the capital cities of Lima, Quito and La Paz among the hardest hit populations. The report predicts that economic losses from extreme weather shifts and disasters, including floods, droughts, freezing downpours of hail and landslides, could reach $30 billion by 2025 — the equivalent of 4.5 percent of Andean Community nations’ GDP — potentially blocking development in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia.

Deforestation and a 30-year temperature rise that is 70 percent higher than the world average along the eastern valleys of the Andes is threatening the ecological collapse and drying out of the Amazon rainforest, the report says.

Against that dire backdrop, tensions ahead of the summit emerged Sunday, when Chávez verbally savaged German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her suggestion that he does not speak for all Latin American leaders. “She is from the German right, the same that supported Hitler, that supported fascism, that’s the Chancellor of Germany today,” Chávez said during his weekly broadcast talk show, “Alo Presidente.”

Merkel, who is scheduled to arrive in Lima on Thursday afternoon, has largely shrugged off Chavez’s customary vitriol.

But the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Durao Barroso, jumped to Merkel’s defense, describing her as “great democrat” during an official stopover in Mexico, before his arrival in Lima. He said Chávez’s “inflammatory, populist and aggressive” statements run counter to efforts to increase cooperation between the EU and Latin America.

Chávez called U.S. President George W. Bush the “devil” at a 2006 United Nations General Assembly, and he labeled his soon-to-be host Alan García “a crocodile from the sewer” during Peru’s last presidential race, in which Chávez supported García’s opponent, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Chavez was famously told to “shut up” by King Juan Carlos of Spain after he called former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a “fascist” last November during a summit in Santiago, Chile.

Durao Barroso met Wednesday with President García in the government palace, where they discussed Garcia’s creation of a new Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, and his proposal to levy a worldwide .50 cent tax on every barrel of oil or liquefied natural gas to fund reforestation projects.

“If we apply just a few cents of a dollar to every barrel of liquefied gas or oil fuel, we would have more than $20 billion dollars in this fund, and this fund would permit us to reforest at least 10 million hectares,” García told reporters in a joint news conference with the EU leader.

Chávez has confirmed he will attend the summit, but has also said he plans to join the meetings at the parallel, third People’s Summit, being held at the National Engineering University in north Lima.

Chavez’s main allies in the region, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and President Evo Morales of Bolivia, also plan to be at this summit, which includes workshops and meetings on human rights, education, youth, public services, migration, urban development, labor unions, poverty, agro-industry, and discrimination.

Meanwhile, the EU-LAC’s second Business Summit is also being held in Lima, on the theme of Investment for wellbeing, development and inclusion. Speakers include Merkel, the EU commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, former president of Bolivia Jorge Quiroga, the president of the Andean Development Corporation, Enrique García, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombian business entrepreneur Henry J. Eder, and President Toledo’s former cabinet chief and founder of the Latin America Enterprise Fund, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

While the EU-LAC summit alone has brought about 5,000 visitors to the city, including approximately 1,500 journalists, the government has given Limeños a four-day weekend, enticing them to “escape town.” No public meetings are allowed and streets close to major hotels are closed off, adding to the general traffic chaos caused by other streets being torn up as part of a city beautification project aimed at impressing the visitors expected for the Pacific Rim Summit to be held in November.

The EU-LAC’s final work meetings have been held at the Museum of the Nation and the adjacent National Library since Tuesday, with delegates completing the final draft of the Lima Declaration to be signed Friday by 16 heads of state.

The background to the Lima Declaration is covered in a joint commitment paper published by the EU, which details the focus of the summit this year: poverty, inequality and inclusion as part of the social dimension, and sustainable development: climate change, environment, and energy as part of the environmental dimension. The Lima Declaration is to include follow-up mechanisms on the two main themes, developed from the EU-LAC 2007-2013 strategy paper.

The EU-LAC Summit is held every two years alternately in Europe and Latin America. Previous Summits have been held in Rio de Janeiro (1999), Madrid (2002), Guadalajara (2004) and Vienna (2006).

The Lima summit is co-chaired by Peru and Slovenia, which currently holds the EU Presidency. Since the Guadalajara Summit in May 2004, both regions have made the promotion of social cohesion a focal point in their relations. Slovenia has advocated improving the quality of primary and vocational education as an indispensable means in the fight against poverty, as well as promoting the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, which could increase employment rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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