Economy

In Argentina, How Mining Companies Get Their Way

In a mine in Chubut, Argentina
In a mine in Chubut, Argentina
Maristella Svampa and Enrique Viale

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES We live in a society in which our pursuit of exponential economic growth is doing systematic and irreversible harm to the environment, challenging territories and threatening the very cycle of life.

Increasing social awareness of such risks explains why debates and decisions today that used to be limited to the technical, specialist and bureaucratic realms have gained wider social and political significance. They have become questions of collective concern involving the public, especially those communities directly affected by decisions in which they increasingly insist on participating.

None of this is easy, particularly since the political class — as exemplified rather scandalously by recent events in the southern Argentine province of Chubut — systematically opposes these kinds of grassroots processes.

On Nov. 25, Chubut's provincial legislature was expected to vote on a bill opposing large-scale mining. The authors of the bill had already collected the signatures of 13,007 people (more than 3% of Chubut's registered voters) supporting the initiative. The bill had also been boosted by intense social mobilization and an emerging consensus that mining projects shouldn't simply be imposed. For those and other reasons, a significant part of the Chubut political class decided to back the legislation.

Not to be outdone, the multinational mining lobby and their political allies took action. Weeks before the vote, mining interests began an aggressive media campaign to warn the population about the supposedly negative consequences of the bill. The lobby accused civil society groups of imposing their views on an "ignorant" populace and complained that the issue had never been properly debated.

In fact, the public in Chubut has been debating mining for more than a decade. And in 2003, the legislature passed a publicly backed provincial law, "Ley 5001," that forbids large-scale mining with toxic material. The recent bill sought to complement that law.

But on the day of the vote, instead of debating the bill proposed by civil society, the pro-government Victory Front and its allies in the Justicialist Party (PJ) proposed another bill with the same name but that was quite different in both content and spirit. The replacement bill clearly distorted the intentions of the original bill. In short, it paved the way for the possibility of megamining activities.

You might say this was "merely" a problem of the public will being manipulated by a self-centered political class, or of a gang of politicians negating or bastardizing democracy's legitimate participatory mechanisms, rending them useless. But in Chubut there was another element illustrating the regression of public institutions in Argentine and the means by which a law is vetoed or suspended.

The next day, someone posted a revealing online picture of Gustavo Muñiz, one of the PJ legislators backing the Victory Front. The photo, taken during the legislative session, showed Muñiz receiving a cellphone message from the Yamana Gold mining company about the wording of the bill.

Photo: opisantacruz

The epidode is a clear illustration of one of the great symptoms of our time: the increasingly explicit, if not intimate, ties between political power and multinational firms.

There are other recent examples. In August 2013, the provincial parliament of Neuquén approved an agreement signed between the oil firms YPF and Chevron, with secret clauses and provisions none of the pro-government legislators in the province or the capital knew about. Not that it stopped them from obediently raising their hands to vote!

There is a national dimension to the incident in Chubut. If we, as Argentines, do not wish to see our politicians cajoled and manipulated by big business and our citizens fall into utter cynicism and detachment for the institutionalization of fraud, then we must seek other ways to resolve conflicts. We must find means to ensure that the democratic system is transparent and its decisions duly democratic.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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