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South America

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Counting Sperm

“I tried counting mine once, but I went blind with exhaustion,” tweeted one reader of the BBC website after it reported that sperm counts were down by half in the past 40 years all over the developed world. And it’s true: they are hard to count. The little buggers just won’t stay still.

The report, published by Human Reproduction Update on Tuesday, is the work of Israeli, American, Danish, Spanish and Brazilian researchers who reviewed almost 200 studies done in different places and times since 1973. It’s called “Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis”, and the authors are working very hard to get the world’s attention.

Dr. Hagai Levine, the lead researcher, told the BBC that if the trend continued humans would become extinct. “If we will not change the ways that we are living and the environment and the chemicals that we are exposed to, I am very worried about what will happen in the future,” he said. “Eventually we may have a problem with reproduction in general, and it may be the extinction of the human species.”

I think I’ve seen this movie a few times already. There was “Children of Men”, and then “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and I was even in a sperm-count movie myself thirty years ago. (It was a would-be comedy called “”The Last Straw”, but happily it isn’t available online.)

Among the many varieties of end-of-the-world stories we like to tell ourselves, the infertility apocalypse is the least violent, and therefore (in good hands) the most interesting in human terms. But the sperm crisis really isn’t here yet, or even looming on the horizon.

What the scientists did in the meta-regression analysis was very useful from a general public health point of view. There have been many estimates of what is happening to sperm counts, but they are conducted under different circumstances, usually with fairly small groups of people, and often in clinics that are treating couples with infertility problems.

This big review of the existing research did no new work, but it did extract rather more reliable data from the many studies that have been conducted by other groups, and there definitely is something going on. Compared to 1970s, sperm counts now in the predominantly white developed countries (North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) are between 50% and 60% down now.

It has been a fairly steady decline in those places, and and it is continuing in the present, but no such fall has been found in the sperm counts in South America, Africa and Asia. So maybe it’s just whites going extinct.

Probably not, though. Most people in South America are white, but there has been no fall in sperm counts there. And there’s no separate data in the survey about what’s happening in the heavily industrialised Asian consumer societies like Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, but one suspects that there have been declines in sperm counts there. It’s almost certainly an environmental, dietary or lifestyle effect, and therefore probably reversible.

As to which of these possible causes it might be, the jury is still out, but a 2012 study by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester concluded that smoking, drinking alcohol, recreational drug use and obesity had little or no effect on sperm counts. Other reports, however, have suggested that eating saturated fats, riding bicycles, watching too much television and wearing tight underpants do adversely effect sperm counts.

In any case, there’s no immediate cause for panic, because all of the studies showed that sperm counts, though lower than in the 1970s in some parts of the world, are not “sub-fertile” anywhere. They are still well within the normal range, just lower on average than they used to be. There’s no shortage of human beings at present, and there’s lots of time to sort this out.

It will almost certainly turn out, when more research has been done, that the main cause of reduced sperm counts is the presence of various man-made chemicals in the environment. Not just one or two chemicals, but more likely a cocktail of different ones that collectively impose a burden on the normal functioning of human metabolism.

We are breathing and ingesting a lot of toxins, and have been since shortly after the rise of civilisation (lead-lined water pipes, etc.). The sheer volume of visible pollutants (particulate matter, etc.) has probably peaked and begun to decline in the most developed countries, but the variety of new chemicals in the environment continues to rise. Further nasty surprises probably lie in wait for us.

Unfortunately, that’s the way human beings work: ignore the problem or put up with it until it becomes unbearable, and only then do something about it. It’s a strategy that has served us well enough in the past, but will do us increasing damage as the problems become more complex. It’s very unlikely, however, that falling sperm counts will be the one that finally gets us.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“What…problems”; and “As to…counts”)

War in South America?

3 March 2008

War in South America?

 By Gwynne Dyer

Something strange happens to the roads in eastern Colombia. As you near the Venezuelan border, you suddenly come across long, dead-straight stretches that are about eight lanes wide. They are, of course, emergency air-strips for the Colombian air force to use in the event of a war with Venezuela, and they date back to a period long before the current crisis between the two countries. But they are still there, and the topic is on the table again.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s threats of war with Colombia, because he often talks like that. Speaking on his weekly television show, Chavez denounced last weekend’s

Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. “This could be the start of a war in South America,” he warned, addressing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. “If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois” (Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela).

Then, intoxicated by his own rhetoric, Chavez upped the ante: “Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately — tank battalions. Deploy the air force. We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the Empire (his term for the United States)… to divide and weaken us.” All very exciting stuff, but can he be serious? There hasn’t been a war between South American countries in over eighty years.

The trigger for this crisis was a Colombian raid early Saturday that killed Raul Reyes, the second-in-command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and sixteen of his companions. It was an important success in Alvaro Uribe’s long war against the Marxist guerilla army, but there was one little problem: it all happened on the far side of Colombia’s border with Ecuador.

Colombia initially apologised, explaining that its troops had come under fire from the FARC band, but it later became clear that Reyes and his men had been betrayed by a spy and killed in their sleep. The border violation was deliberate and premeditated. Two friendly governments might still have smoothed the matter over — after all, if Ecuador was policing its border properly there should not have been any FARC troops on its territory, and besides no Ecuadorians were hurt in the operation — but these are not friendly governments.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, like Venezuela’s Chavez, is one of the “new left” leaders of South America, whereas Alvaro Uribe is a conservative leader with close US ties. Both Correa, whose country borders Colombia on the south, and Chavez, whose country borders it on the east, essentially see FARC as a legitimate contender for power in Colombia. Chavez even eulogised Raul Reyes as a “good revolutionary” and condemned his “cowardly murder” by the Colombian army.

Uribe (whose father was killed by FARC in a bungled kidnap attempt) has gradually been winning his war against the guerilla organisation: numbers of commanders have been killed or captured, and there is now a steady flow of defectors. Nothing could be better for Colombia than an end to this crippling five-decade insurgency whose leaders still spout the antique Marxist rhetoric of the 1960s. But both Chavez and Correa see FARC as a friendly force.

The Colombians have long suspected that Chavez allows FARC units to rest and re-train on Venezuelan soil. Correa has only been in power for little over a year, but the Colombian army claims to have found a letter from Reyes to the FARC high command in the dead man’s hard drive in which he recounts his discussions with the Ecuadorian security minister about establishing a permanent link with Correa’s government.

So the Colombian government suspects both its neighbours of aiding and abetting FARC, and it may well be right. Venezuela and Ecuador fear that the recent Colombian incursion into the latter’s territory to kill FARC fighters may be only the first of many, and they also worry that the United States is encouraging such attacks as a way to destabilise these two leftist governments. They, too, may be right.

Given these concerns and calculations, the apparent over-reaction of Chavez and Correa — Ecuador has also dispatched troops to the Colombian border, and both countries have expelled their Colombian ambassadors — may be quite rational. They may be trying to overstretch the Colombian army and give it a two-front problem, in order to protect their FARC friends and deter any further cross-border operations by the Colombians.

But they’d never actually go to war, would they? It still seems very unlikely, in particular because the far more experienced Colombian army would dismantle any forces the Ecuadorians sent against it in a matter of days. Venezuela and Colombia are more evenly matched, and for that very reason it would not be in either government’s interest to have a war: neither side would win.

So that’s settled, then. Except that I keep remembering those emergency airstrips on the roads. Even long before Uribe and Chavez came to power, somebody thought that a war between Colombia and Venezuela was likely enough that they spent all that money on preparing for it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Colombia…governments”; and “The Colombians …government”)

Bolivia: Race and Revolution

19 December 2005

Bolivia: Race and Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

Bolivia has had more presidents by far than any other country in South America, mainly because so many of them were overthrown long before their terms ended. They were also all white, even though the majority of Bolivia’s population is “indigenous”, descended wholly or in part from the Indians whose ancestors already lived there as subjects of the Incan empire at the time of the Spanish conquest five centuries ago. So what are the odds that Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, will survive a full term of office?

Morales, who won an absolute majority of the votes in last Sunday’s presidential election, faces not only the usual hazards of life as the president of South America’s poorest country, but also the threat of American intervention to overthrow him. As a socialist whose declared goal is to “end the colonial state” and a leader of the coca farmers who promises to lift the ban on growing coca leaf, the crop from which cocaine is produced, he is deeply unpopular in Washington.

In the past, policies that are unpopular in the United States have proved to be bad for the president’s health in a number of Latin American countries. To those who argue that the Bush administration is too deeply mired in the war in Iraq to contemplate acting against Morales, the pessimists point out that the US found the time to organise the overthrow of the president in Chile in 1973 despite being neck-deep in the Vietnam war. The election of Morales, they fear, will finally focus Washington’s attention on how countries all over Latin America are rejecting US tutelage.

The main target of Washington’s wrath so far has been Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has built an unassailable domestic base (he has won eleven elections and referendums in the past seven years) by spending a lot of the country’s oil revenues on the health and education of poor Venezuelans. He has built a close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, whose regime has obsessed US administrations since the beginning of the 1960s, and he is now providing Venezuelan oil at a discount to other Caribbean and Central American countries (and even to poor Americans).

It is Chavez’s incendiary language that gets the headlines — last month he called President George W. Bush a “madman, a killer and a mass murderer” — but his aim is serious: to free all of Latin America from the grip of neo-liberal economic policies, indeed from American influence in general. Last July’s launch of Telesur, a new television network whose aim is to provide an alternative to US-based news and analysis for all Latin Americans, is a case in point. It is based in Caracas and 70 percent financed by Venezuela, but it is also backed by the governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Brazil.

The larger reality is that while the Bush administration has been obsessed by its grandiose plans for reshaping the Middle East, the real transformation has been happening in America’s own “back yard”. Left-wing governments have come to power in Brazil and Argentina, the two biggest countries of South America, and in a number of smaller countries as well.

Like Chavez in Venezuela, they combine a commitment to the poor and a rejection of the project for a US-dominated “Free Trade Area of the Americas” with a pragmatic respect for the rules of the free market: no nationalisations (except for oil and gas) and more or less balanced budgets. With this month’s presidential election victories by Michelle Bachelet in Chile and now by Evo Morales in Bolivia, virtually all of South America except Colombia and Peru is now part of this nascent left-wing bloc.

But the continent is seeing more than just a comeback in modern dress by the traditional left. The Indians and part-Indians who form a downtrodden majority in most of the Andean countries are staging their own comeback. They mostly talk in terms of winning elections and re-writing constitutions, but they basically share the view of Antauro Humala, leader of the Etnocaceristas in Peru: “There are four races, black, white, yellow and copper. We are the copper people and I want us to be recognised as a race.”

Hugo Chavez’s Indian and black ancestry is written all over his face, and explains much of his popularity with the majority of mixed-race Venezuelans who felt excluded by the dominant white minority in that oil-rich country. Evo Morales is even more clearly a descendant of the Incas who ruled the central and southern Andes before the white conquerors and settlers arrived, and he wants the two-thirds of Bolivians who share his heritage to hold the power in their own country at last.

It will get very fraught in Bolivia when Morales starts re-writing the constitution to include the excluded, as he has already sworn to do, but the ethnic solidarity among Bolivian Indians that has helped him into power will also make it very hard for Washington to overthrow him. So long as he avoids the civil war that some of the more extreme members of the white minority may now try to provoke, he will probably manage to serve a full term in office. What he does with that term may change Bolivia beyond recognition.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The larger…as well”; and “Hugo…last”)

South American Union

6 December 2004

South American Union

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s not even a free trade area yet, but when it grows up it wants to be just like the European Union. The whole history of the continent is against it, of course, but then Europe’s previous history didn’t leave much room for optimism either.

On Thursday, 9 December, the leaders of every South American country except the three Guyanas will gather in Ayacucho, Peru to sign the preamble to the Foundation Act of the South American Union (SAU). They chose Ayacucho because that was where South American patriots defeated the last Spanish royal troops and ensured the independence of the Spanish-speaking half of the continent exactly 180 years ago this month — but the single, united republic that Simon Bolivar dreamed of was swiftly defeated by the realities of geography.

The Portuguese-speaking half of the continent has always been a single country, because communications are relatively easy in Brazil, but the mountains and rivers that divide up the rest of the region ensured that there would be nine separate Spanish-speaking republics (with about the same total population) in the other half. It has truly been “180 years of solitude,” to adapt Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous phrase, with land travel between the various South American countries generally more difficult than in any other continent except Africa. Now they want to change all that.

The original concept of the SAU came from Brazil’s last president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who invited the other South American presidents to Brasilia in 2000 for a first-ever continental summit, but the idea has been vigorously backed by his successor, President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Both men, unsurprisingly, are on the left: South American solidarity has grown more attractive as the United States has moved right and many South American governments have moved left. But there is more to it than that.

South Americans were acutely conscious that as the rest of the world moved into trading blocs, their continent was being left behind once again. The European Union, the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were old news, but Washington’s proposal for a hemisphere-wide, US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) threatened to extinguish any prospect of a common South American future and goaded many local patriots into action.

Last month’s announcement that the ASEAN leaders and China, Japan and South Korea were contemplating a broader East Asia Free Trade Area raised the stakes considerably, for such a trading bloc, especially if it also included India, would embrace about half the human population and a good third of the world’s economy — the fastest-growing part, at that. If the FTAA were anywhere near ready, the lure of belonging to such a large trading bloc might trump the attraction of a mere South American Union, but it is not.

The Bush administration has been totally distracted by Iraq, and there have not even been substantive negotiations on the FTAA for two years. The Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA), lowering tariff barriers between the US and six smallish Central American and Caribbean countries, was supposed to be a stepping stone towards the FTAA, but even that deal now faces probable defeat in the US Congress over a piddling question of sugar quotas. So the runway was clear for the SAU.

The South American Union is not meant to be just a free trade area, either, although that will be the first major step in the process. Its founders are talking about a parliament for the whole continent, and even about a common currency in the end. Their model is explicitly the European Union, which grew to its present scope of 450 million people in 25 countries speaking 18 languages by similar stages over five decades. They believe that South America, with 400 million people in ten countries speaking only two languages, can do it even faster. They may be right.

The ceremony at Ayacucho is a modest start: the ten presidents are signing a two-page preamble to a constitution whose contents will only be discussed in detail at a conference that is still six month away. However, this month should see the signature of a free trade deal between the two existing trading blocks in South America, Mercosur and the Community of Andean Nations, which together include all the SAU members except Chile. That is a real signal of intent.

It will obviously be years before anything resembling a true South American common market, let alone a unified political space, begins to emerge from the negotiations, and at least two countries, Chile and Uruguay, are openly sceptical about the prospects for success. In fact, if the United States could drag its attention away from the Middle East and re-focus on its ambitions for its own hemisphere right now, it would probably be able to seduce some potential SAU members away with special one-to-one free trade deals with the US and wreck the whole plan.

But there is little sign of that happening soon, and after a couple of years the momentum towards the South American Union will start to build up. After centuries off in the corner, South America may be joining the world at last.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Last…SAU”)