Arise Argentina – reports from the frontline for environmental justice

People across Argentina mobilized March 24 to commemorate the 30 year anniversary of the initiation of the military dictatorship in which at least thirty thousand people were “disappeared” — kidnapped, tortured and murdered. In every village, town and city in Argentina, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets.

In my town, there was a big march. The night before some zapallistas (members of the Squash Front) painted a huge poem on the front of the police station where the center of torture and internment for the city was. Then we collected hundreds of pounds of poor cow bones from the slaughterhouse with which to build a bone sculpture and altar for the anniversary march. By the next morning when we went to make the sculpture the hour before the march, the bones had gotten so rotten and stinky that it was a disaster of foul odor and rot. So we took the stinking bones and hid them next to the cathedral. When the march passed the cathedral, people hoisted them out, and the anarchist kids, bless their hearts, braved the rankness and began to pelt that church with hundreds of huge stinking slimy bones — they even broke some windows. Lots of folks joined in. And also three dozen hollow eggs filled with red paint.

It wasn’t just any church — the Catholic hierarchy was completely complicit with the military dictatorship, and not only complied, but assisted in the tortures and disappearances, identifying people to kidnap & torture. The Church has mostly remained impune to this day. The crowd was chanting “Iglesia Basura, Vos Sos la Dictadura!” (Church, Trash, You are the Dictatorship)

We had blessed the poor bones first as best we could, understanding that the poor cows are exactly just as much victims of torture and murder as their human counterparts thirty years ago and today. And hoping that our consciousness will rise to where someday we will treat our bovine brothers and sisters with as much respect as we should treat our bipedal kin.

From Coup to Business as Usual

The military coup, initiated in 1976, lasted seven years, and from a capitalist, corporate, exploitative point of view, was quite “successful.” The repression was brutally focused on the people and parts of society who were striving to build a more equitable and self-sufficient country. The military dictatorship destroyed labor unions, small businesses, the left, and opened the doors for the intrusion of the “world economy” — transnational corporations, dependency, poverty and shackling debt — into Argentina.

Now, thirty years later, the very same government officials are speechifying about the barbarity and cruelty of the dictatorship – while they are busy carrying out the vicious economic, social and ecological policies which their predecessors so brutally imposed on this once proud and beautiful country.

The people of Argentina are aware of this contradiction: the spirit of resistance is strong. As I write this, thousands of citizens in Gualeguaychu are encamped, blocking the highways, blocking the construction of a multinational pulp mill along the river Uruguay. Indigenous rights groups are actively occupying and taking back ancestral lands. Campesinos are waging battles to keep their lands, anti-mining activists are struggling against US and Canadian mining companies, agricultural activists are working against GMOs and agrotoxins, to name a few examples.

It seems that in Argentina, as in many Latin American countries, the question of the “environment” is a political time bomb that could explode in any of many moments and places – for example, the issue of the toxic paper mills has turned huge international debate, initiated by a handful of citizen activists – who still are blocking the bridges, borders and highways, exercising a strong and very democratic popular will. The same could happen with respect to soy production, to the control of water and land, and to mining.

Argentina is a beautiful country, with a wealth of “natural resources.” But poor old mother nature is getting raked over the coals in Argentina. Transnational companies are literally dragging and selling away her very earth and living matter on an scale unprecedented even by Latin American standards. This is the result of international trade directives imposed by institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF and carried out by a compliant and rewarded Argentine ruling class — a ruling class that has been developed and cultivated through over forty years of political and economic violence.

However, not too long ago, Argentina was a country with a promising destiny, with a vision of development not dependent on world capitalism. In Argentina today one can still find plenty of people with solid leftist politics and sensibilities, and strongly progressive, autonomous principles and modes of community organizing are still alive, however sometimes almost buried under stultifying day-to-day economic pressures.

In 2001, Argentina surprised itself and the world with a powerful, anarchistic explosion of popular will against globalization and corruption. Workers took over factories, democratic community assemblies emerged as the expression of popular will, alternative autonomous projects formed, and people took to the streets to demand change. In general, these projects have withered considerably in the past few years. Structural adjustments made in 2002 meant that for foreign investors, Argentina suddenly became 70% cheaper to invest in. The invasion of foreign capital and goods, (especially Chinese made goods), has continued to destabilize the autonomous projects and small businesses, while propping up the upper class.

Social programs, such as welfare and unemployment and pension programs, were huge demands of the social movements post-2001. Some of these demands were achieved, but at a great cost: the government now uses the distribution of welfare as a powerful tool of social and political control, coopting many of the social movements as it preserves its own hold on power.

Argentina has suffered through a huge, multibillion dollar foreign debt, a debt which first served to prop up the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, loans which lined the pockets of the upper class in the 1990′s and to this day still pay for useless dam and infrastructure projects which only serve multinational corporate interests. The Argentine people have paid their debt many times over, however interest keeps piling up. Recently in December ’05 the Kirchner government announced a debt payoff and forgiveness plan with the IMF. The bottom line of this plan is that the government of Argentina has agreed to economic measures that don’t surprise anyone: they have agreed to continue giving away rights to Argentine natural resources to multinational corporations who promise “investment” and “development” which carry devastating economic and environmental costs.

The Disaster of Soy Monocultivation

The transgenetic soy business is booming in Argentina. The majority of the millions of acres of fertile soil of the Pampas is now dedicated to soy crop, 99% of which is transgenetic. 1,250,000 acres of forest, plains and wetlands are bulldozed and burned yearly (that is 3,400 acres daily) converted into fields of soybeans drenched in glyfosate and fertilizers. The thin topsoil of the scrub-forest plains, or monte, or the north, already clearcut of native Quebracho hardwood forests forty years ago, will not last 10 years before it is completely exhausted, worn away and toxic. In this North region, the mineral and organic manner of the thin topsoil is literally being converted into soybeans, and shipped away. Every three hours, 365 days a year, another supertanker carrying 25 million kilos of soybeans plies the mighty river Paraná towards foreign ports.

Argentine soybeans are crushed and turned into animal feed by US companies (Cargill) and shipped by international firms to feed primarily European factory farm pigs, beef and chickens. Argentines pay six billion dollars a year to US and European firms to pay for the fertilizers and glyphosate, and pay Monsanto for their seeds, or will pay a surcharge to Monsanto for using bootlegged transgenetic seeds. Most of the universities, trade and governmental agricultural institutions have been bought and are controlled by corporate agri-pharmo-petroleum interests.

There has been a huge redistribution of land in the past ten years, as millions of agrarian people who lived in the “campo” or farmland, large numbers of them indigenous, have lost their land and their connections to the land, and have migrated in the “villas” or slums, that ring the overburgeoning cities. Due to the soy revolution, lands which once supported one family per acre, have now become more “productive” — and now only support on the average one worker per 900 acres. Argentina is rapidly losing its “alimentary sovereignty” as it has become a exporter for global corporate feed lots.

The very landscape and climate of huge regions of Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil are being transformed by soy cultivation. As former wetlands, rainforests and headwaters of the huge Paraná and Uruguay rivers are bulldozed into soy fields, the climate changes, erosion increases, and the river loses its ability to absorb water in the rainy seasons, making flooding inevitable (for example the floods of Santa Fé in 2002 which killed hundreds). Due to international shipping, the mighty Paraná is being converted into a “superhighway” for shipping, and dredging of the river just exacerbates the danger and problems facing the river and those who live nearby it.

The rivers and ocean are being rapidly overfished: In the rivers, poor and unemployed families are paid poverty wages by transnational fishery companies to illegally drag-net the rivers — every single fish they net is processed into animal feed for factory farms in Brazil. In the past few years overfishing and contamination is sending many bedrock species of fish (squid, loboster, hake in the Atlantic, Sábalo in the Paraná river) towards extinction.

Water Speculation: The Great Argentine Aquifers

The landscape of Argentina is being sold off to foreigners. From Bennetton in Patagonia to George Soros’ soy fields, to the Gap’s multimillion acre spreads in Misiones, land is being sold off, subdivided, monocropped and speculated. The greatest speculation is over water rights. Argentina is home to a large portion of the Guaranì aquifer, and many believe that water rights and sales will be the gold mine of the post-soy years, as soybeans are expected to lay waste to Argentina’s fertile fields within the next 8 years. This region, called the Triple Frontier for its border with Paraguay and Brazil, is becoming heavily militarized, as the United States has penetrated deeply into this region via Paraguay, building bases and projecting its force for this crucial resource.

Paper Companies

The paper companies, mostly European, are stripping millions of acres of native woodlands, from the hot and humid North down thousands of miles south to Patagonia. Native woodlands are replaced with fields of genetically-modified eucalyptus or pine. These acres qualify as “green space” for CO2 credits on the Chicago Stock Exchange, increasing the wealth of pollution-credit traders. Paper mills are widely known and hated as some of the most contaminative single source emitters in the world, and there are a dozen in Argentina, spewing their vile filth in the rivers of the Northeast. Uruguayan president Tabaré Vasquez supports plans to build a huge transnational paper mill on the Uruguay river, and this has led to an unprecedented movement against the paper mills, and a mobilized local population on both the Uruguay and Argentina sides of the Uruguay river — the largest demonstrations of the year (50,000+ persons) have been against the paper mills.

Last week in my town, masked commandantes of the “Frente Zapallista” (Squash Front) carried out attacks against a paper mill, pelting the grounds and plantations with hundreds of “biodiversity bombs” clay balls filled with compost and a diversity of organic seeds which they had cultivated in the local anarchist occupied permaculture garden.

Transnational Mining Plunder

Large portions of the Andes mountain range are literally being stripped and shipped away. Transnational gold mining companies, mainly US and Canadian, have managed to buy dirt-cheap rights to thousands of square miles of mining claims, within a “Binational Treaty Zone” along the ridge of the Andes bordering Chile, whose splendid peaks have become an international Free Trade Zone for the plunder of mineral ore containing gold, silver and copper. Firms such as Barrick Gold, Xstrata, Rio Tinto, Newport, Billon, etc. have invaded the agrarian mountainous region, creating a political and economic infrastructure for the extraction of ore in huge “open-pit” excavations, processing of the ore with thousands of tons daily of deadly cyanide, generating millions of tons of toxic emissions and acid drainage, and shipping the ore to the United States. Firms pay less than 1.5% royalties on the gold they export, and use mind-boggling amounts of water and electricity and diesel, subsidized by the Argentine people. The mines are generally located at the very headwaters of the rivers which bring the water to the arid agricultural Andes foothills regions, diverting the watersources and returning the waters and aquifers polluted with deadly combinations of heavy metals, acids, cyanide, mercury and arsenic.

The resistance against mining is being carried out mainly by younger people, fed up with the fact that for them, there is no future in strip mining. They are organizing protests, concerts, and educating. Oops I got myself thrown in jail in a small town for distributing “Barrick Dollars,” demonstrating how US companies like Barrick Gold bribe corrupt local officials to implement polluting projects to which residents are opposed.

Dodgey NGO’s

One interesting phenomenon observable in all these cases is a wave of dubious, pro-industry NGO`s posing as environmental advocates in order to facilitate the continued exploitation of land and people. Groups including Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Vida Silvestre, etc., have participated in, for example a campaign called “Sustainable Soy,” participate in the creation and legitimization of bogus “Carbon Credits” which enable the clearcutting of virgin forests and the creation of vast plantations of monocrop genetically modified tree plantations for paper manufacturers. These groups make deals directly with transnational companies for the creation of bogus “natural reserves” behind the backs of the people who live in affected areas, painting a green face on the continued expansion of the extraction and contamination. All over Argentina, and Latin America, activists and environmentalists are learning to identify and reject the false NGO’s who are really just front groups for capitalist interests.

The Fight Against Transnational Capital

Argentina has clearly entered a new phase of intense extraction and exportation of its natural resources by international firms. But there are groups and movements fighting against this. In Santiago Estero, Cordoba, el Gran Chaco, many groups of indigenous and agrarian peoples are uniting to fight their displacement and evictions. Mapuche people are organizing against land speculators in Patagonia. Activists and ecologists are engaged in fights on many different levels, for example the hundreds of thousands of people who have marched against the proposed paper factories on the Uruguay/Argentina border. In the Andes, groups of Vecinos Autoconvocados (Self-Organized Neighbors) are rising up and joining together with communities throughout Latin America to reject the contaminative gold, silver and copper mining companies. Workers are entrenched in bloody strike against petroleum companies in Las Heras, in the south of Patagonia.

Argentina has a rich tradition of autonomous organizing, a strong left-wing bent and gravel in its gut. Settled by waves of anarchists expelled from Italy and Spain at the turn of the century, anti-statist traditions still live on. The public University system is still free. The experiences of the uprising of 2001 and the importance of concepts such as community decision making by assembly, rupture, horizontality, worker management, autonomy, the role of women in the movement, give a lot of hope for possibilities for the Argentine people to keep struggling against the selling off of their country. The environmental situation is a time-bomb that is building up pressure, as the people continue to build strong counter forces.