Worldview: Environmental Conflicts and Interdisciplinarity in Argentina

by María Valeria Berros

Environmental issues are highly debated in today’s Argentina, and are researched across a range of disciplines—political science, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, literature, and law—as problems linking nature protection, development, and poverty. Analysis has begun to focus on disciplines where the ecological question is fundamentally relevant, such as public debate, risk, and social protest. New social actors have also begun to appear, including environmentally concerned assemblies of neighbors, networks of nongovernmental organizations, and groups of professionals including doctors and lawyers. The different judicial and legislative legal strategies arising from such interdisciplinarity are relevant not only for resolving conflicts but towards widening their visibility, and in some cases establishing new and more protective regulations.

The installation of a cellulose processing factory, a “Papelera,” on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River can be observed as one of the first significant environmental conflicts in Argentina. In 2003, a prominent mobilization of Argentinean and Uruguayan citizens began with a series of protests—including one on the part of the bridge that had joined both countries for several years—aimed at the prevention of the plant’s construction. Argentina submitted a judicial claim before the International Court of Justice, which in 2010 rejected its request to suspend construction; regardless of this decision, the social conflict continues. Beyond revealing an Argentinean judicial strategy, this case has placed the environmental topic more centrally.

Photo: Mobilization on the international bridge during Papelera case.
Mobilization on the international bridge during Papelera case. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Environment and health protection issues have also received the attention of the Supreme Court of National Justice, which decided on the pollution of the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin. This extends 57 kilometers through many localities, and is one of the most relevant environmental problems in the country, affecting more than three million people in Buenos Aires city and province. The claim was central to industrial pollution in the region—which began two centuries ago—being seen as a significant socio-environmental problem. In 2008, the Court ordered the fulfillment of the plan for basin reparation presented by national, provincial, and local states. This “Mendoza” sentence is in execution, and despite its challenges is one of the most important cases in Argentina by acting as a basis for other judicial decisions, and stimulating innovative, interdisciplinary thinking in environmental law. This litigation exposed the difficulty in explaining socio-environmental cases from only the juridical field, so opening dialogues with the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences.

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Photo: Matanza-Riachuelo Basin. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Many other socio-environmental problems in Argentina can be cited here. In 1996, the authorization of the use of genetically modified seeds for crops—and the consequent increase in pesticide use—led to several changes in Argentina’s agriculture, including an increase in land use. With growing intensity over ten years nongovernmental organizations, health professionals, and those exposed to pesticides denounced the negative consequences. Judicial claims against fumigations proliferated, showing a creative strategic use of law in the judicial field. The Paren de fumigarnos network links citizens, nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, and health professionals seeking to stop fumigation. Such an interconnection between different actors—including experts—is one of the most important characteristics of change, and the pursuit of both scientific and nonscientific—such as epidemiological— explanations for risks is central. This type of articulation is also present in other socio-environmental problems, such as the installation or extension of electric power plants or cell phone towers.

Fumigation with pesticides. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.
Fumigation with pesticides. Photograph: Santiago Nicolau, Flickr Creative Commons.

The problem with genetically modified organisms is linked to the loss of biodiversity caused by cultivated territory expansion, the consequent decrease of forest regions, and pesticide use. In the northern provinces this has been denounced by several social actors, and has served as the object of judicial claims before the Supreme Court of National Justice. Deforestation in Salta Province and yerba mate crop competition with natural area conservation in Misiones Province has led to indigenous people raising their voices for biodiversity: their territory is in danger and so they wish to be consulted over environmental laws and decisions. Such intercommunication is central for the incipient exploration of nonconventional gas and oil in Chubut Province, Patagonia, highlighting the importance of different voices in making decisions for nature protection.

Related to biodiversity, some innovative judicial claims have focused on the introduction of foreign animals by hunting enterprises. The expansion of such projects began in the last decade of the twentieth century, linked to the introduction of exotic species and illegal hunting of autochthonous species. There are two problems here: one the one hand is the competition between exotic and autochthonous fauna. and on the other is their protection. This is a classic tension between ecology-centered and animal-centered movements. In Santa Fe Province, the nongovernmental organization Capibara, Naturaleza, Derecho y Sociedadwhich aims at identifying contributions from the juridical field to rethink connections between nature and society—submitted a first judicial claim to annul a hunting enterprise authorization. The judge demanded dialog between the organization and Santa Fe Province to review the implementation and regulation of this practice.

Capibara NDS Lawyers in front of the Court of Santa Fe. Photograph: María Valeria Berros.
Capibara NDS Lawyers in front of the Court of Santa Fe. Photograph: María Valeria Berros.

Special attention is paid in Argentina to animals in danger of extinction. One central example is the yaguareté, an animal that once could be found across the country but has since been displaced to the north. A group of biologists, nongovernmental organizations, and other local actors—in particular in Misiones Province—developed a strategy to save the species from extinction that combines diffusion measures, regulation projects, and a scientific project with local knowledge. With the expansion of cultivation, ranching territory, and urban areas comes an increase in conflict between human activity and the ability of the yaguareté to survive.

Yaguareté. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.
Yaguareté. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Animal freedom is also an issue in Argentina that benefits from interdisciplinarity. The use of circus animals was prohibited in numerous cities and provinces several years ago, and in December 2014 a sentence to attend to the liberation of Sandra the orangutan from the Buenos Aires zoo was declared by a judicial court, having been submitted by Asociación de Funcionarios y Abogados por el Derecho de los Animales, a nongovernmental legal group from Corrientes Province. In May 2015, the tribunal decided to nominate the organization to represent orangutan Sandra in the current judicial process. Such strategies are often related to, or inspired by, the Great Ape Project—which emphasizes the similarity between humans and big apes—and the Nonhuman Rights Project. The main idea of both projects is to achieve rights for species beyond humans; in the case of the Great Ape Project, the focus is on orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

Sandra the Orangutan. Photograph: Asociación de Funcionarios y Abogados por el Derecho de los Animales.
Sandra the Orangutan. Photograph: Asociación de Funcionarios y Abogados por el Derecho de los Animales.

These are just some of the environmental conflicts faced in Argentina, but all have common intersections. It is difficult to analyze them from the perspective of just one field of knowledge: we must consider the heterogeneous dimensions of such conflicts, and our next challenge is to find or build bridges of dialog between them. This is one of my most important objectives as a lawyer: to reflect from the legal field, but considering other disciplines—one of the reasons for my fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center. The circulation of valuable forms of knowledge and extension beyond scientific disciplines is an urgent challenge for the environment in Argentina and more globally.


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