Raúl Montenegro at the 2018 Regional Conference in Santa Cruz.

Raul Montenegro on Argentina: “What was serious before now becomes catastrophic”

News 14.03.2024

The arrival of the extreme right to Argentina brings enormous social, cultural, economic and political setbacks, warned Argentine biologist and Right Livelihood Laureate Raúl Montenegro. The outlook is equally discouraging for the environment: the new government – soon to complete 100 days in power – is imposing measures that reduce protections and promote the looting of natural resources even as the country is already in a critical state, Montenegro told Right Livelihood in a recent interview.

The author of these reforms is Javier Milei, a right-wing populist and libertarian economist, who was elected president in November 2023, with his emerging political coalition “Freedom Advances”. Supported by mainstream media and corporations, he gained popularity by announcing he would eliminate taxes and make the political elite pay the costs of reducing the high inflation that was suffocating Argentinians. Before becoming president, Milei served for one term as a deputy in Congress, where he had a record of absences.  

Montenegro, the founder and president of the Foundation for the Defense of the Environment, an NGO organising communities to protect their environment for more than 40 years, noted that the new government’s strategy is drastically aggravating an already alarming environmental situation and destroying important legislation built during lengthy citizen participation processes.

“Many of the policies that Javier Milei shows have a strong parallel with those of Donald Trump in the United States and those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil,” he said.

The first measure Milei took – on the day of his inauguration  – was restructuring the state. He decreased the number of national ministries from 18 to 9, with the former Environmental Ministry losing its rank to becoming an undersecretariat. This loss of hierarchy, however, is not what worries Montenegro the most. 

“Yes, we had a Ministry of the Environment, but one where agribusiness and everything related to mega-mining were practically state policies,” said Montenegro, criticising the state agency’s previous role in environmental protection. 

He noted that historically, regardless of what political party or ideological leaning the governments in power belonged to, the Ministry of the Environment was never headed by experienced people trained in or even concerned about environmental protection.

“Mega-mining and agribusiness were state policies, not to mention that they [previous presidents] all have also been absolutely pro-nuclear,” Montenegro explained. “So we must clarify this: it is not that we go from an environmentally happy country to a catastrophe. It was already serious before, and this makes the catastrophe worse.”

After just ten days in office, on December 20, 2023, Milei introduced an urgent decree, a 300-page text with 366 articles that modified and repealed previous legislation on various topics. The new legislation was met with widespread accusations against the president for having exceeded his powers, and large-scale protests by civil society and workers’ confederations broke out. However, the decree remains in force.

On environmental matters, the decree repealed the so-called Land Law, which limited land ownership by foreign people and corporations, especially in coastal areas. 

“That has been directly blown up as legislation, and there is a whole mobilisation of different organisations and particularly indigenous communities, as they will be among the most affected,” said Montenegro, who received the Right Livelihood Award in 2004 precisely “for his outstanding work with local communities and indigenous people to protect the environment and natural resources.”

Days after presenting the urgent decree, Milei sent to parliament an omnibus bill – meaning legislative texts that contain multiple reforms to be dealt with simultaneously. Through a new decree, he convened the Congress for extraordinary sessions, which were outside the standard operating period between March and December, so that they could process the 664 items contained in that package.

Laws protecting glaciers, forests and fisheries along with legislation on fire management and seeds were the principal environmental regulations that this package sought to modify. When the new bill was debated, security forces were deployed in front of the National Congress and elsewhere to quash protests. They used rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters, including even retirees and journalists covering the demonstrations. 

“A not minor detail is that this government knows that society will react against these unpopular measures, so they have decided to set up an entire system of repression to criminalise the protests and be able to push through the reforms,” added Montenegro.

Eventually, the omnibus bill received general approval by a majority of legislators. However, its passing didn’t succeed days later because it lacked enough votes to approve each of its articles specifically. Milei then withdrew the package from Congress, promising to advance his reforms through other means. He also vowed to financially suffocate the provinces in retaliation for the lack of legislative endorsement by their representatives.

“We must remember that everything we have been seeing is just pieces: the seed law, the glacier law, the forest law, the fire law, the demand for a wetlands law that will not pass: These are a set of elements interacting, although they are not seen as a whole, but rather in little pieces,” Montenegro explained. “The problem with all these simultaneous elements is the accumulative function, which not only decreases biodiversity but also reduces our resistance to climate change.”

In response, Montenegro and his legal advisor plan to file a criminal complaint against President Milei for violating the Escazú Agreement. It is a regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean that commits the signatory states not to reduce environmental protection with regressive legislation while establishing that decisions that affect the environment must be taken hand in hand with citizens. Argentina ratified the agreement in 2020.

“All the environmental laws that this administration intends to modify have been the result of very complex parliamentary work driven by the mobilisation of organisations and assemblies that have required an enormous social effort,” Montenegro said. “It is absurd that we now have a government where the decisions of the state are always in favour of corporations and against society and the environment we live in. The task of resistance is to stop it.”

 

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