Interview with Lalo Moreyra

Local action in Argentina...(above top)... is reverberating internationally (above, bottom), as these demonstrators in front of Finland’s Embassy in Buenos Aires carry on the protest started by a community on the border between Argentina and Uruguay against two paper mills that a Finnish company, Metsa-Botnia, is developing.

Sharona Coutts

Surrounded by the trappings of an Argentinean corporate executive, Lalo Moreyra is an unlikely environmental campaigner. But from his comfortable office in the province of Entre Rios, this Pepsi distributor and football fanatic leads an environmental dispute that’s pitting Argentina and Uruguay – normally friendly neighbours – against each other.

‘We blocked the roads illegally in exercise of our universal right to defend our land and our way of life,’ he says. ‘Yes, we have cut the right of free movement. But we did it to show the world that there are, here, people who are fighting for their environment. And we are getting there. Today the world knows that there is a town here where whole families and people with disabilities walked 20 kilometres in a protest to say: “Yes to life, and no to the pulp mills.”’

That slogan adorns the shop windows and bumper bars in Moreyra’s hometown of Gualeguaychu, which sits directly across the Uruguay River from the proposed pulp mills. Locals say that the mills will contaminate the river and kill the wildlife that depends on it. For the past year, they have blocked one of the roads that join the two countries, costing Uruguay up to $400 million in lost tourism and trade.

The mills – if they went ahead – would be Uruguay’s largest-ever industrial investment and would boost the country’s GDP by an estimated 1.6 per cent. Uruguayans say that Argentina is upset because they missed out on the projects. But Moreyra disagrees: ‘If these investments, which come from Finland and Spain, bring us the garbage that they can’t accept in the First World, then they are lying if they say that they are bringing us investment. They are bringing us poverty.’

The community’s stance has elevated this local conflict into an international dispute, one that is threatening the future of the regional trading bloc that operates in parts of Latin America, called Mercosur. The World Bank, which is financing part of the project, has suspended its loans to the companies pending the results of further environmental impact assessments. The Bank’s President, Paul Wolfowitz, has met with Uruguay’s President, Tabare Vasquez, as well as Argentina’s Economy Minister, Felisa Miceli, to try to resolve the problem. In early June, the countries took the dispute to the International Court of Justice. At times the legal arguments sounded like a political punch-up, with Uruguay’s team implying that Argentina had rampant corruption problems.

But no matter what the politicians and the courts decide, Moreyra says that the local community will not accept the mills. ‘We are not going to permit that these plants are installed here… and nor are we going to give them, as a gift, one single litre of water in order that they can make their extremely white, extremely expensive paper, which is not just expensive to buy, but also costly to the health and the future life of this planet.’

Moreyra persuaded locals to lift their blockade and wait for the ICJ’s decision, as long as it comes quickly. ‘We are sending an SOS to the World Court: please resolve this for my people because we want to keep living the way we are now. And we hope that the Court will act quickly, because slow justice is no justice.’

Uruguay says that the roadblocks violate treaties with Argentina, and wants to take its arguments to the dispute resolution body of Mercosur. But Argentina, which is presiding over Mercosur at the moment, has been blocking that move because it thinks it will get a better result in The Hague. In response, Uruguay has threatened to leave Mercosur and negotiate a free-trade deal with the US. Seeing this as the worst possible result, the other regional heavy-hitters, Venezuela and Brazil, have weighed in to try to find a solution.

Whatever the outcome, it will need to win local approval. President Kirchner was part of the left-wing youth movement that opposed Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and early 1980s, and he has promised never to bring in troops to remove peaceful protesters. Short of that, Moreyra says that the only way the protesters will open the road permanently is if they are satisfied with the diplomatic decisions. ‘Here in our province we have 41,000 kilometres of rivers. We have three aquifers between 10 and 90 metres deep. And farther, deeper down, we have the Guarani aquifer; the main source of fresh water for the future generations of this continent. We will not give these companies the social licence to send, from outside, the polluting part of their production into our South American lands.’

Lalo Moreyra talked with Sharona Coutts

Interview with Diego Rozengardt about a new generation of political activists in Argentina

*‘Our society has demonstrated that if we stay at home and cry, nothing ever happens.’*

This, says Diego Rozengardt, is why he became one of the main organizers of a flourishing social movement in Argentina called Generación Cromañón. Not that he really chose this role. In fact no-one became a member of Generación Cromañón by choice.

Rather, activism flared in each of their hearts in the aftermath of the fire that devoured the Republica Cromañón discotheque in Buenos Aires on 30 December 2004. The nightclub was overcrowded: over 3,000 revellers were packed into a club licensed to hold 1,034. By midnight Argentine news bulletins were broadcasting Dante-esque scenes of bodies being pulled from the premises: the bodies of sisters and brothers; lovers and friends; sons and daughters. The fire and toxic fumes injured thousands and 194 people lost their lives. Diego’s 18-year-old brother, Julian, was one of those who died.

‘We don’t call it a tragedy,’ explains Diego. ‘We call it a massacre. A tragedy is natural, inevitable. This was not natural. This was not inevitable. If we say “tragedy”, we talk like there was no guilt.’

And where there is guilt, Generación Cromañón is making sure that it is exposed. Families and survivors are demanding a wide-ranging inquiry into safety regulations as well as the events that followed the fire. Over 30 people – including officials and businesspeople – have been indicted so far. Diego says that the families are not interested in compensation – they want justice: ‘[Days after the fire] the Government tried to offer 300,000 pesos ($98,400) to each family with a fatal victim, and 180,000 pesos ($59,040) for every survivor if we agreed not to bring law suits against them. We all refused. [Instead] each family demanded that the State take full responsibility.’

So far the most significant political casualty has been the City Mayor of Buenos Aires, Anibal Ibarra – suspended from office while he undergoes impeachment for his alleged failure to enforce fire safety regulations: ‘He had advice about the way that clubs and pubs and mini-stadiums were working in this city and he did nothing. That would be negligent. But we [also] know that he has very close relations with the owners of the discotheques. For example, the first time he appeared in the media, he appeared with all the [disco] owners behind him as if they were the victims. That’s why we want more than his resignation. We want his incarceration.’

Nevertheless, Diego – an economist and part-time university lecturer – thinks the Mayor may be protected from punishment: ‘Justice in this country is not free or independent. The President supports him.’ While claims about the justice system may be difficult to substantiate, the connections between Ibarra and President Nestor Kirchner are uncontested. Prior to Cromañón, Ibarra was widely tipped as Kirchner’s likely Vice-Presidential running mate in 2007. Kirchner has not yet confirmed whether he will run for re-election. But if he does, Ibarra will not be by his side.

On the first anniversary of the fire, tens of thousands of people marched from the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to the ruins of Cromañón in the nearby neighbourhood of Once. Flanked by representatives from the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Generación Cromañón representatives repeated their demands for political accountability. What was striking about this rally was the presence of young people in the crowd – people born after the fall of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. In an era when many of the world’s teenagers and twentysomethings are thought to be alienated from politics, these young adults are taking a leading role in rallies and marches and are instrumental in organizing the movement.

‘I think that my generation is different from that of my parents, but not in a good way. They are not political because the dictatorship here killed a lot of people – 30,000. That persecution was based on killing the critical thinkers: the critical ideas. When democracy came back to this country in 1983, we were not the same people. Politics became a dirty word.’ Diego believes that for his generation – the children of those massacres – the normal answer is not to be critical of the system. This creates significant social results: ‘I think that [these] people are very superficial and not concerned about being a citizen.’

The question is whether Generación Cromañón can overcome these attitudes and become a catalyst for change. The movement’s momentum is growing. Coverage of the related trials and the impeachment of the City Mayor make daily news. Diego hopes that they will have the stamina: ‘This is not something that you can solve in a few months. This is a very long fight, not only against this Government or this mayor. This is against the kind of society – the corruption and impunity – that we don’t want any more.’

Read more at Diego’s family’s website –

Diego Rozengardt talked with Sharona Coutts