This has been a busy week. I saw a paper mill, I went to Uruguay, I met another former President of Argentina, and visited a former clandestine detention center. I will write about the detention center, la ESMA, in a separate post.
On Wednesday, we went to the Río Uruguay (the river that forms a border between Argentina and Uruguay) to look at the giant paper mill that is being completed there on the Uruguayan side of the river. The mill was built by a Finnish company, Botnia, and was the subject of massive protests on the Argentine side of the river, both from the local community of Gualeguaychú and from the provincial government of Entre Rios and even the Argentine national government. Despite all the protests, which included road blockages and several massive demonstrations, the World Bank funded the project and now there is a huge mill in the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos. For some background info on all of this, see:
We started on the Argentine side, in the town of Gualeguaychú, and spoke to people at the local NGO who had opposed the mill since its inception. Since we have been studying NGO advocacy strategies, it was very interesting to hear these people's perspective on the situation and their ideas about how to proceed now that the mill has been funded and built. Their posture was, simply, that they opposed the mill and the global system that allowed the mill to come into existence, and they refused to negotiate with anyone in that system. Okay, fine, we law students thought when we heard this, but the mill's there. It's going to open in a month or so and is already pumping crazy, cancer-causing chemicals into the river. As an organization opposing this, wouldn't it be useful to think of a legal strategy to gain some ground against Botnia so that they have to make some concessions about using better environmental technologies in the mill?
It's a complicated problem, to be sure, but it seems to me that there are some fairly strong legal arguments that environmental NGOs and the Argentine government could pursue now. For example, Uruguay and Argentina have a bilateral treaty that says that each country must consult the other before taking any action that would negatively affect the Uruguay River. If Uruguay failed to follow procedure and consult the Argentine government before contracting with Botnia, then the mill is in violation of an international treaty and there must be some legal remedies available. But the people at the NGO we talked to seemed pretty stuck on the position that they were anti-"the system." Well, aren't we all. But realistically, you have to work within that system to get anything done, whether you approve of the system itself or not. Morally opposing the idea of socially irresponsible international project finance isn't going to make those practices disappear, but you can work within a legal framework to either give those companies incentives to change or else punish them for not meeting their legal obligations.
After we spoke with the NGO people, we drove to the road block, where we encountered some locals who control what traffic goes through to the bridge. I didn't really understand how the block worked, to be honest, but our professor spoke to the people -- I guess he told them we opposed the mill? -- and they let us through. We drove over the bridge spanning the river and got our first sight of the paper mill on the other side of the bank. The Botnia mill itself is a pretty awful sight. It's a massive, sprawling complex perched on the bank of an otherwise beautiful river (which is situated in an area that used to be devoted mainly to tourism, incidentally). There were clouds of smoke billowing out from a tall chimney, non-stop. Next to the mill were huge piles of wood, waiting to be turned into woodchips. The man who accompanied us over the bridge told us as we stared out over the brown water at the complex that now there is dioxin in the river, since it's a by-product of the mill's processes. Dioxin. The same stuff that ate away the face of that Ukranian politician who was poisoned. In the water. This is not good.
We drove across to Fray Bentos, Uruguay. After a long customs process which involved us walking back and forth a few feet between several desks in an otherwise empty customs office, we took a remis (shady taxi van) into the town and talked to some people on the street. The first person we approached was a lady on a blue moped who, it turns out, happened to work at the mill. She was highly enthusiastic about the papelera (paper mill) and explained that the reason the Argentines opposed it was because they were jealous that Botnia chose to build in Uruguay instead of in Argentina. In other words, the Argentines are just sore that they are missing out on the industry and the job creation and all the talk about contamination and disease is just propaganda. Well, we thought, maybe this lady is just exceptional because she works in the mill. But no. The next few people we talked to all said pretty much the same thing: they were happy about the mill because it will create jobs for Uruguayans and they don't think the contamination is a real threat.
After our mini-field research session, we got back into our van and took a spin around the town, because I wanted to see the Barrio Finlandés (the neighborhood where all the Finnish employees of Botnia live). It was a little, isolated neighborhood of brand-new, pre-fab houses with green lawns and barbecue pits out back. It's weird thinking about Finnish people being in Uruguay. Anyway. Interesting day and a lot to think about.
Now, onto Alfonsín. Raúl Alfonsín was the first democratic president of Argentina after the military dictatorship. Before he became President he was a human rights activist and it was under his administration that the trials of the military leaders began. All good, but he also passed two really controversial laws (which were recently struck down by the Supreme Court) that slowed the trials of the military leaders. The reason for this was because Alfonsín was under a lot of pressure from military and right-wing factions to roll back the trials. Hm.
So, Alf (as I will refer to him for the rest of this post out of sheer laziness) invited us to his apartment to chat with him on Thursday afternoon. He's 80 years old and reminded me of a kindly grandpa. He talked about his grandkids and told us little anecdotes about his trips to the U.S. Cute. We did get to ask him some human rights questions and overall the meeting was interesting. More warm and fuzzy than anything else, since afterwards he showed us pictures of himself with various political figures and let us see his library, and he called all the girls querida. style="font-style:italic;"> Aw, Alf. It was fun meeting him. Pretty f-ing cool that I got to meet two former Presidents of this country in less than three months. Go Harvard.