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.

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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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