By Alejo Álvez
Though there has been no express definition from the government of President Mauricio Macri — who took power on Dec. 10, 2015 — regarding environmental issues, and the defense of the environment did not figure prominently in the program of the PRO-Cambiemos (Let’s Change) alliance that led him to the presidency, both the National Executive and the governing body of the strategic livestock and agricultural province of Buenos Aires, administered by the same political sector, are taking similar paths.
During the election campaign, Macri did not elaborate on details but did promise to create a Ministry of the Environment, something he has effectively fulfilled. But his first decisions contradict his claim to “restore the institutions” at the environmental policy level.
With his first measures Macri has shown favoritism towards large scale farmers and grain traders, a sector that employs farming practices involving the use of large quantities of highly polluting agrochemicals, with a substantial devaluation of 43 percent and the elimination of the export tax (in the case of soybeans he reduced this tax in principle from 35 percent to 30 percent). Afterwards, Macri benefited the mining sector through a decree dated Feb. 15 enacting the elimination of all export taxes.
The appointment of conservative Rabbi Sergio Bergman as head of the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development has been considered paradigmatic. Bergman, who was a legislator during the term of Macri as head of government of the City of Buenos Aires (2007-2015), admitted that “this appointment was a surprise because I have no technical knowledge on these issues, although I promise I will learn.”
The appointment of the authorities of the National Parks Administration was made public on Jan. 26; this is the agency responsible for the conservation and management of the ecosystems, monuments and nature reserves. Macri signed, along with Minister Bergman, the decree for the appointment of Eugenio Breard as president of the agency and Emiliano Ezcurra as vice president.
Breard was a senior executive of the US tobacco company Phillip Morris and, as such, he was part of the team that outlined the strategy of the company in its dispute against Uruguay — initiated in 2010 and that is still pending an outcome — in reaction to the anti-smoking policies adopted in the first term of then President Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010). Ezcurra is an old Greenpeace activist who in 2009 was funded by the American magnate Douglas Tompkins to create his Banco de Bosques (Forest Bank). That year he joined the organization Forest Stewarship Council (FSC) and became coordinator of that entity of Toronto, Canada, which offers its own seal of accreditation and certification of forest management to individuals or companies interested in sustainable logging. The environmental organization Vida Silvestre (Wildlife), in a document dated 2014, quotes the Observatory of Energy, Technology and Infrastructure Development (OETEC) stating that the FSC “is nothing more than a transnational organism that includes in its network some other multinational companies that are in the paper business.”
The United Soy Republic
No less paradigmatic was the appointment of Leonardo Sarquís to the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs of Buenos Aires, the largest national producer of genetically modified soybean and maize. In his Linkedin network profile, Sarquís recalls that he was regional manager for the program of transgenic seeds for Monsanto and claims that during his time there, the company experienced a “sustained growth in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay,” together with Brazil; the quartet that makes up the so-called United Soy Republic.
The administration of Sarquís in Buenos Aires will count with the backing of Ignacio Garciarena from the National Directorate of Agriculture, a prominent soybean planter who chairs the Argentine Association of Direct Seeding Producers (AAPRESID) and, as such, is an advocate of the unrestricted use of glyphosate, an agrochemical produced by Monsanto to protect their seeds and identified as carcinogenic and harmful to the environment. When coming to the defense of glyphosate, Garciarena defined environmentalists as “eco-anarchists.”
In this basic sector of the Argentina economy, Macri closed the circle by designating former national deputy Ricardo Buryaile as head of the Ministry of Agro-industry; he is another prominent soybean producer who became a legislator in 2009 after having led the previous year, along with his peers from the four sectors of soy producers and agricultural entrepreneurs, a frustrated campaign to impeach the former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015).
The OETEC and other organizations drew attention to the appointment of Juan José Aranguren as Minister of Energy and Mining, who in the previous 12 years had been the executive director of the Anglo-Dutch oil firm Royal Dutch Shell.
The mostly Canadian mining companies operating along the Cordillera de los Andes received a generous treatment promoted by the Secretariat of Mining. Its director Daniel Meilán and his deputy director Mario Capello were both appointed by minister Aranguren and they have a long trajectory in the private sector. Both were the drivers of the extractive model embodied in the Mining Code ordered by the neoliberal government of former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).
Mining does pollute
As the specialized portal Miningpress noted on Dec. 2, Meilán and Capello, who is the director of the Argentine Association of Mining Engineers (CAIM), “have the best contacts in Canada, home base of the largest mining companies that are now operating in the market.” In his inauguration speech, Capello repeated a sentence that is written in a CAIM document: “Those who question mining are ignorant persons with stateless ideologies; it is well known that mining produces zero pollution.”
“The government rewards a sector that has no qualms about polluting and devastating our natural resources, let us remember for example that the mining company Barrick Gold is responsible for a cyanide spill into the tributaries of the Jáchal river in the mountains of San Juan (in the west), that polluted the water of several villages,” said Laura Álvarez Huwiler, an expert at the state run National Council of Scientific and Technical Research.
Indeed, on Mar. 10, a San Juan judge prosecuted nine executives of Barrick Gold for “negligence and incompetence” and fined them US$ 56,000 for the spill in December 2015 of one million liters of cyanide solution at its Veladero mine. The official study that supported the court ruling found that “the waters of the Jáchal River are contaminated with metals in doses of up to 1,400 percent above the tolerable human exposure values.”
The Eco-Environmental Network and the citizens’ assemblies of the towns of Esquel (in the south), Chilecito and Famatina (in the north) and villages located along the Andes, mobilized against the elimination of export taxes to the mining industry that Macri announced on Feb. 12, and denounced that the government protects one of the most polluting and dangerous activities, which continues to take place without control over the natural resources.
Greenpeace, meanwhile, said that before protecting mining, “the government should be concerned about meeting compliance with the National Glaciers Law, which is being systematically violated, as was evidenced in San Juan with the criminal spill caused by Barrick Gold, polluting the waters of the Jáchal.”