By Lucas Christel and Daniel Torunczyk
In April 2003, a story ran in the New York Times Newspaper entitled “A Town’s Protests Threaten Argentina’s Mining Future”. Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, the title was essentially premonitory of the advance of mining development activities in Esquel, Chubut province, as well as other provinces in Argentina. The Asamblea de Vecinos Autoconvocados de Esquel por el No a la mina (AVAE: in English, the Self-Appointed Neighbors’ Assembly Saying No to Mining against Looting and Pollution) burst into the conflict in the middle of 2002. Using a variety of repertoire of contention that combined direct action with institutional elements, such as judicial relief and a successful local referendum, AVAE successfully stopped a gold and silver mining project by Canadian-based company Meridian Gold (Svampa & Antonellli 2009; Walter y Alier 2010; Torunczyk 2015). More than a decade later, this essay seeks to assess the cycle of socio-environmental mobilization against transnational mining in Argentina, and to bring to light the actual challenges to environmental mobilization.
The reasons for the protest
The mining conflict in Argentina can be traced back to a small town in Patagonia, where AVAE emerged in the middle of 2002 (Torunczyk 2016). The progression of the mining conflict and subsequent social movement can in some sense act as a model for other similar socio-environmental movements in the rest of Argentina (Marin 2009). While the goals and claims of socio-environmental movements (SMs) in Argentina differ from group to group and region to region, certain patterns can be identified. Many SMs focus their protests primarily on the negative impacts mining projects can have on water, soil and air pollution, and the huge amount of energy and water consumption. From a socio-economic view, SMs also highlight the limited benefits of mining on local economies and job creation (Araoz Machado et. al. 2011). Finally, from a juridical and political approach, SMs reject the neo-liberal framework within which their activities are regulated…”(Christel and Alvarez 2011) and the repercussions for democracy at the sub-national level (provincial and local): the criminalization of social protest and not holding consultation processes accordingly to the national and international laws.
The effects of socio-environmental protest on legislation
The growth of socio-environmental protests has produced different legislative responses at the sub-national level. For example, SMs in Esquel (Chubut province) successfully lobbied for the first law limiting open-pit metal mining, at least partially: allowing exploration but not exploitation. Between 2005 and 2010, the provinces of Rio Negro, Mendoza, La Rioja, Tucumán, La Pampa, Cordoba, San Luis and Tierra del Fuego all passed laws banning open-pit mining. However, the regulation of metal mining is dependent upon different socio-political dynamics of transnational mining at the sub-national level (Christel 2016, Torunczyk 2016).
On one hand, in provinces where open pit mining exploitation is permitted, such as Catamarca, Santa Cruz, and San Juan, mining regulations have been constrained by unfavorable structures of political sub-national opportunity, political systems characterized by low levels of plurality and lower levels of economic development and diversification (Christel 2016). On the other hand, in the cases of Rio Negro and La Rioja, laws restricting mining activity were repealed by provincial executives, re-configuring the conflict between different social actors, both political and economic. The repeal of these laws casts uncertainty on the future of mining development in Argentina.
Challenges: building an environmental citizenship
The construction of a national environmental citizenship throughout Argentina, based upon other rights enshrined in the Constitution (Art. 41), and recognizing international conventions, is one of the most important challenges for democracy in Argentina. There are two main reasons for this challenge: first, building a national environmental citizenship requires a strong, united opposition to mining development at the federal level. The Unión de Asambleas Ciudadanas (Union of Citizen Assemblies) was formed in 2006 in an attempt to articulate the collective goals of SMs in the fight against mining development; however, the Union’s success has been subject to the limitations of consolidation, expansion, and coordination. Second, it can be difficult to replicate the successes of SMs at the sub-national level on a federal scale; the enactment of the Ley Nacional de Protección de Glaciares (Glacier Protection Law) in 2010 has been a milestone for the socio-environmental mobilization in Argentina. Since the early 90s, the Congress managed to pass a federal law that regulates the development of open pit mining in Argentina (Bonnasso 2011, Taillant 2012); however, its application at the sub-national level is far from completed.
After more than a decade since the beginning of the cycle of socio-environmental mobilization in Argentina, the following observations can be made: socio-political heterogeneity can make it difficult for mobilization activities to successfully translate from one province to another. The construction of an environmental citizenship appears to be imperative for the future of democracy in the country, ideally in a context where the extractive profile of Argentina, including mining, soybean, and fracking, will not be questioned by political and economic elites. Environmental rights are respected unevenly across the country, and mechanisms provided to citizens for participation and consultation to determine where natural resources should be allocated is ineffective.
Leslie Moore, “Business; A Town’s Protests Threaten Argentina’s Mining Future”, Diario New York Times, 20 de abril de 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/20/business/business-a-town-s-protests-threaten-argentina-s-mining-future.html. Up to 2003, only two mining projects were in production in Argentina, in Catamarca (Bajo La Alumbrera) and Santa Cruz (Cerro Vanguardia). In 2005, Barrick Gold, a Canadian company, started the mining project of Veladero in the province of San Juan.
Even during the cycle of post-neoliberal governments in Argentina (Kirchnerismo 2003-2015) a deepening of extractive models without a consequent strengthening of the environmental citizenship has been seen. (Cisneros and Christel: 2014).
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