Raúl Montenegro

(2004, Argentina)

...for his outstanding work with local communities and indigenous people to protect the environment and natural resources.

About

Raúl Montenegro was born in 1949. Since 1985 he has been Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the National University of Cordoba. In 1982 he was the principal founder of FUNAM (Environment Defence Foundation), and has been its President since 1995.

Contact Details

Raúl Montenegro, President
FUNAM (Fundacion para la defensa del ambiente)
Casilla de Correo 83, Correo Central
5000 Cordoba
ARGENTINA

Biography

Since 1980 Montenegro has been involved, normally in an initiating role, in an astonishing range and number of environmental activities, which include:

  • Anti-nuclear: this has been probably Montenegro's single largest field of activities, which have included: a six-year successful campaign to close Los Gigantes uranium mine; campaigns against plans for nuclear waste dumps, nuclear waste shipments and nuclear releases; a successful campaign to stop the construction of a reprocessing/MOX plant and a Cobalt 60 irradiation plant; a successful campaign to stop nuclear prospecting in the Traslasierra Valley; promotion, with substantial take-up, of the concept of municipal nuclear-free zones; campaigns against the privatisation of Argentina's two nuclear plants (third under construction), against the construction of a fourth plant, and against the import of Canadian CANDU reactors, into both Argentina and Guatemala. All these campaigns have been successful so far. Montenegro was also chairman of the campaign against Argentina's nuclear plan, with many demonstrations, meetings and articles, and exposure of nuclear leaks and accidents and illegal nuclear testing.
  • National parks: Montenegro has been instrumental in the establishment of six national parks or nature reserves. He has prevented car rallies through one, and received death threats for campaigning against the building of a golf course in another.
  • Disposal of toxic waste: Montenegro has fought many successful campaigns against plans to build toxic waste incinerators, exposed, and forced the clean-up of, a number of toxic waste dumps.
  • Pollution by chemicals and high-voltage power lines: Montenegro has exposed polluting releases by factories and successfully fought to have high-voltage lines located away from population settlements.
  • Forests, wildlife and biodiversity: he has stopped the deforestation of at least 500,000 hectares, campaigned to prevent forest fires, run campaigns to protect endangered ecosystems, and acted to tighten up the protection, and national trade rules affecting the export, of several endangered species.
  • Water environment: he has run several campaigns against dams and for the provision of clean water and for ecologically sensitive water management. In June 2000, action by FUNAM led to cancellation of the Canal Federal project to move water from two of the poorest provinces to another which would benefit properties of the rich. FUNAM challenged the government on legal and environmental grounds and eventually Montenegro was informed that the project had been dropped.
  • Environmental legislation: for 4 years Montenegro was Cordoba's Under-Secretary of the Environment, an independent and non-political member of the Cabinet, promulgating many environmental laws and initiatives, including Argentina's first requirement for Environmental Impact Assessment for both private and public projects. He formed an Environment Council and launched the Environment Defence Brigade of conservation volunteers. Out of office he contributed to the drafting of a number of environmental laws and has launched more than 40 prosecutions for environmental destruction in the courts.
  • Environmental education: for five years Montenegro wrote a column on ecology in one of the main weekend newspapers. He was Chairman of FUNAM's Children's Campaign for Peace and Life, which worked with 350,000 children in Argentina, and coordinated the Voice of the Children International Campaign at the time of the Earth Summit, which involved more than 600,000 children in 42 countries. For 20 years he has been a familiar figure on Argentine TV and radio. He was Project Director of FUNAM's 'Only One Environment' project, which produced 36 videos on ecological subjects for distribution throughout Argentina and neighbouring countries. 
  • International representation: Montenegro has been a member of the Executive Committee of the Environment Liaison Center International in Nairobi (ELCI, 1988-91), a Vice-President of Greenpeace (1987-89). He is now Director of the international Biomass Users Network and FUNAM's main representative of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

In addition to all this Montenegro has had a full academic life, publishing in journals and keeping abreast of (and sometimes contributing to) advances in ecological science, which he then tries to implement.

In 2003 Montenegro joined indigenous groups in their struggle against logging and mining companies. In the case of the Mby'a Guarain, the threat is that logging will reduce the land available to them from 4,000 ha to 300 ha. Living with the Mbya Montenegro helped them map their land and biodiversity needs. Having documented their customary use of the land, he is now helping them to fight for their rights in the courts. His approach is spreading to other tribes. With regard to mining, Montenegro is helping to convene an historic and unprecedented meeting of 140 indigenous leaders to fight for their land rights.

Other work in the last two years has been with a number of citizens' groups to fight off environmental menaces. In one case Montenegro's scientific analysis of the drinking water, which seemed inexplicably to be making residents ill, revealed a toxic build up of arsenic and heavy metals in domestic water tanks, many of which had not been replaced or cleaned for 10-30 years. This simple discovery, with a new government campaign to ensure that all household water tanks are drained and cleaned, could save thousands of people from debilitating illness and death. More recently he contributed to stop the provision of polluted water in a 50,000 people area, and presented a judicial claim against governmental responsible and private companies. Two top governmental leaders resigned and 13 neighbourhoods are currently provided with clean water.

In all his activities Montenegro combines an expert use of science with community-based campaigning, and an ability to generate enormous media coverage.

Montenegro received University of Buenos Aires' Prize to Scientific Research when he was a student (1971) and the national 'Argentina has examples' prize in 1996. FUNAM received a Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1987, and Montenegro received the same Award personally in 1989. In 1998 Montenegro was in Salzburg as one of four recipients to be accorded the Nuclear-Free Future Award.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Raúl Montenegro

December 9th, 2004

Honorable guests, dear friends, according to the Mbya indigenous people I met in the Kuña Piru rainforests, problems and solutions live in different countries.

Our challenge is how to bring them together. From my personal point of view, human species has been discarding obvious solutions and increasing obvious problems. Why? A possible answer is our poor capacity for reading nature and society. We can read a book, but we cannot read nature or ourselves. We are illiterate, even having diplomas, postgraduate courses, and Internet.

Humans began as a species 160,000 years ago. Our main innovations were dependent on the capacity of our brains.

The human neocortex permitted the receiving, storage and processing of incredible amounts of information. Before us, most living species had only inherited patterns of behavior, with scarce capacity for processing flows of external information. Within living organisms such a lack of cultural variation was highly convenient for the survival of ecosystems.

Cloned behavioral patterns resulted in each species becoming more ecologically predictable. Homo sapiens, to the contrary, stored unprecedented amounts of information, and transmitted such information through several generations. With a flexible ecological niche, our behavior became more unpredictable - unfortunately for the ecosystems. How to combine our non-predictable species with predictable ones?

For at least 150,000 years our lack of predictability was not a problem. Small populations of hunter-gatherers and weak access to sources of energy diminished our impact on the environment.

Nevertheless something changed 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. In 9 different cultures and places, we invented the short food chain and called it "agriculture". For the first time in human history small amount of energy used for planting and collecting produced enormous quantities of chemical energy and nutrients. As a consequence of surplus products, the first green revolution was followed by first urban revolution. Meanwhile hundreds of indigenous groups from all over the world continued to live using long food chains. During the last 5,000 to 10,000 years the two strategies collided. Such silent battle nowadays grows, unseen and unheard by most people.

The short chain strategy needs deforested areas and extremely low biodiversity, in fact only one species. The long food chain demands the conservation of natural ecosystems and high biodiversity. Unfortunately, short chain strategies are the current winners. Agriculture, even organic, functions in a similar way to mining. Outputs are not balanced with inputs. Since the last century we know that only natural ecosystems can produce soil, manage freshwater and protect existing climates. Without natural ecosystems and their natural factories, environmental stability cannot exist. The tragedy of this collision is that most of our societies, from capitalist to socialist, ignore it. We are silently killing indigenous communities and unborn future generations by using only short food chain strategies. Long food chain practitioners face their own crisis in the short term but in contrast, short food chain nations transfer their current environmental disturbances (and suffering) to next generations.

The only way to survive is by being aware of this collision, and reacting to it as citizens, researchers or presidents. There is only one solution for each natural ecosystem of the world - by maintaining the balance between the surface covered by natural ecosystems and that used for agriculture, at least 50% of each. Unfortunately, in most of natural biogeographic regions such provision has not been accomplished. There are entire regions whose natural ecosystems have been replaced with crops or cattle grazing. By far, this is one of the main problems facing humanity. We are destroying invaluable resources, and ruling out the possibility of survival for future generations. The rich can migrate when times are hard but the poor have no option but to stay when the land is spent. When the land no longer bears fruit, it is the poor that die.

Which are the main causes?

  • 1) Cultural drift. Small groups make decisions for large populations and their decisions have a great statistical probability of being wrong, or even lethal. The more power is used in a dictatorial manner, the more risks exist for the whole society and the environment. The Manhattan Project, which produced the first three nuclear detonations on Earth, and the current Iraq war, are good examples.
  • 2) Militarism. The armed wing of governments and private Mafiosi unnecessary deviate funds to sustain any decision their leaders make, whether wrong or illegal.
  • 3) Corruption. Governmental and private corruption supports and enables illegal decision-making, non-democratic empowerment, and money accumulation.
  • 4) Incompetent leaders. The lack of capabilities among irresponsible dictators, presidents and governors often damage millions of human lives. Augusto Pinochet and George Bush are good examples of this.
  • 5) Corporate selfishness. There are corporations like those producing oil, tobacco and nuclear electricity that cheat and deceive in order to increase their financial margins.
  • 6) Lack of justice. High consumption lifestyles, unequal access to health and bad distribution of goods and services increases poverty, illness and mortality. While a poor farmer consumes 2,500 kilocalories per day in the South, citizens in industrialized countries spent over 300,000 kilocalories per day, per person.
  • 7) Lack of sustainable information. Millions of people consume products whose cultivation and manufacture destroy both the environment and human lives simply because they are uninformed. The consumption of Soya in China and Netherlands, for example, promotes and enables the deforestation of unique ecosystems in Argentina and Brazil, and
  • 8) Bad science and technology. Research and technical development often ignore sustainability, human dignity, and the rights of future generations to be born.

What to do? There are a lot of counsels and recipes.

The simplest one is to know what is happening, and to decide where and how to act. Any journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. The collision of short and long food chains strategies are at the basis of our current crisis. Indigenous peoples living on their ancestral lands can help industrialized countries by living in a sustainable manner (not the contrary). If we destroy their environments and communities, we will lose the answers they have to solving our problems, and to the protection of our common futures. The most complex nuclear power station is less important than a tropical tree, and the most simple and sustainable answer more useful than any National Library.

I receive this award as a new window for transmitting old doubts, old practices and old knowledge. The Right Livelihood Award transforms our small words into great headlines. It's a wind from the North that empowers the South, its peoples, its forests, our truth. According Martin Luther King the great tragedy of contemporary peoples is not only the roar of dictatorship, but also the silence of good people. Since its creation, the Right Livelihood Award has contributed to breaking that silence.

There are now 25 years of broken silences.

Many thanks.

Publications

Indigenous Health 2. Indigenous health in Latin America and the Caribbean. Raúl A Montenegro, Carolyn Stephens. Lancet 2006, 367, 1859-69. Download (pdf)

Contact

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