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Everyday revolutions

Defending the Earth in Argentina: From Direct Action to Autonomy

April 6, 2014

Marina Sitrin in conversation with Emilio Spataro, an organizer with the Guardians of Iberá in Corrientes, Argentina

While corporations continue to land grab, exploit and privatize the little we still hold in common – people around the globe have been rising up. Women are preventing dams from being built in India; indigenous are Idle No More, defending the earth; entire town and villages have organized to prevent airports, roads and mines from being developed in France, Italy and Greece; thousands in the US have used their bodies to block the construction of pipelines intended for fracking; and throughout the Americas there are struggles everywhere against mining and the exploitation of land and water. Not only are people fighting back – but in many places, such as the one in Corrientes, Argentina described below, people are creating horizontal and self organized ways of being in the space of the resistance. Not only are people collectively shouting  No! and using direct action en mass to prevent the destruction of the earth, but together they are finding ways to autonomously recreate their relationships with one another, to work and with the land.

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Regional assemblies in Corrientes

The below conversation is with Emilio Spataro, an organizer in Corrientes, who has been active in various movements in Argentina since his teen years. He was a part of the popular rebellion in December of 2001 and the subsequent neighborhood assemblies, building occupations and horizontal self organized projects. Since 2009 he has been living in Corrientes, collaborating with territorially based movements. He is currently on tour in the US with another movement participant from Guardians of Iberá (salvemosalibera.org). One of the targets of their most recent campaign is Harvard University. Harvard owns massive timber plantations in Corrientes and the movements together with students, faculty and staff at Harvard have been organizing to hold them accountable.

Marina: Can you describe a bit of how you organize and if you see that as related to the popular rebellion of 2001? Many people have argued that 2001 in Argentina was just that, only a date in history and that while there was great organizing it is now over. Do you see that as true?

With respect to what I understand of autonomy and horizontalism, clearly this is a process that began in Argentina on December 19 and 20 of 2001 with directly democracy experiences such as the assemblies of the movements of unemployed workers, that began on the road blockades, the neighborhood assemblies etc..

All the energy that was released on the 19th and 20th and all that continued to happen in 2002, 2003 and later did not slow down in Argentina. That is, there was an epoch change —  it has been more than 10 years and we have a government that already has a long continuum of Kirschenrismo as well as the many changes in Latin America — but the important energy is in peoples  active participation, to make or join an assembly to discuss problems, listen, create tools through direct actions such as road blockades and demonstrations. That is not stopping, not at all, the opposite, it is a part of something that was spread by the new movements and movements that already existed. It was developed as a process years before the 19th and 20th, but the social explosion was generated from 19 and 20 so everything that had been brewing came to light and was magnified and then became much larger and more diverse.

But yes, sure, one can go to Buenos Aires today and not find a neighborhood assembly in every neighborhood, or on every corner as it was in 2002. But it is no less true that today if you went around the whole country to all the provinces, in many you will find horizontal assemblies organized in territorial defense and fighting unions – there are endless struggles taking place in the form of direct assemblies with strong horizontalism and where the discussion of the role of the State or unions or institutions is strong and permanent, that is, the discussion about the autonomy of these experiences is permanent.

Marina: You were active as a part of the movements before and after the 19th and 20th of 2001, what are you doing now?

When I left Buenos Aires I went to Corrientes, which is in the north of Argentina, about 1,000 kilometers from the city of Buenos Aires, to work for an environmental foundation about conservation of the Iberá Wetlands, which are similar to the Florida Everglades. They are the most important subtropical wetlands in Argentina and have a series of environmental problems. Then, when I got to know the province I decided to stay and organize together with people who were trying to create self-organized experiences and assemblies fighting for territorial defense.

Together we built the organization Guardians of Iberá, which is now a social movement that has social ecology as its main banner of struggle. We organize in the territory, have created cooperatives for our survival, and when we have to we demand through demonstrations and direct action. We have community radio programs and everything that similar territorial organizations in other parts of the country have.

Corrientes is a very old province, one of the first provinces and territories colonized by the Spanish in what is now Argentina and there is a very strong mixed culture both Hispanic and Indigenous. It is the only province in Argentina that has the Guaraní language as a co-official language, with it spoken by one-third of the inhabitants. It is one of the poorest provinces in the country with an ultra conservative ruling political class, similar to say, Texas. Socially it is a province with a long history of Guarani resistance movements. There is still a very important rural population but most of the population is concentrated in the capital, Corrientes, which has approximately 400,000 inhabitants.

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Regional gathering of assemblies in defense of the earth.

Marina: What spurred this current movement?

In recent years there has begun the process of Land Grabbing – mostly starring foreign companies. A number of companies, both in the timber and rice industry were also land grabbing and destroying the environment. In a very short amount of time this generated considerable unease in the population. And because the people of Corrientes have a very strong cultural identity and a very strong history resistance, it generated a popular movement. The experiences of 2001 and 2002 in Argentina had become something permanent in the population, as I mentioned before, with the idea and the possibility of organizing together horizontally.

As far as structure, the organization is permanently changing because it is still very new. Guardians of Iberá was born in April 2011 during a direct action we did in a town called Colonia Carlos Pellegrini on the banks of Lake Iberá. There was a lot of repression and some members of the organization were detained by the police, and because of all the confusion that was generated in the various groups and assemblies, we begin to talk about Guardians of Iberá as an organization that would be useful. Today the Guardians of Iberá is composed of many assemblies from the various towns as well as villages in the countryside. In some places it has a stronger rural character, and in others more of an urban one, the features of the organization depends on the people organizing in the various locations.

What is common to the entire organization is the defense of the territory, confronting the advancement of extractive companies that want to plunder it and the building of autonomy with our own self-managed projects. We call this the creation of sustainable alternatives, which is reflected in the various cooperatives we have organized. For example, in the rural zone of Lavalle those families who suffered contamination from fumigation are together producing organic food and flowers and then selling them in the popular markets and fairs. Others are producing bricks from the Paraná river. In Yahaveré, an impoverished rural zone, the indigenous Guaraníes have organized an autonomous community and decided in their assembly to produce cow meat in harmony with the environment. In other localities, such as Chavarría, San Miguel and Concepción they are organizing tourism collectively and in a way that respects the dignity of the communities and serves to share what has been happening with the local struggles. These tourism groups also plan to show others how to help take care of nature. The economic form of organization is cooperative, and the decisions are all made horizontally in assemblies.

We also have a radio show in the capital called ” Something with Water ” operating by the Malvinas War veterans. It seems somewhat odd to see war veterans with a fighting ecological organization, but the reality is that here in Corrientes and in other parts of Argentina the Malvinas veterans are deeply pacifist, they do not want more war, have no American-style nationalist stance and have an anti-imperialist vision. The Malvinas issue and the veterans of the Malvinas War receive a lot of support from social movements.

Marina: How are the movements relating to the State and attempts at cooptation and repression?

Overall there was maturation in the sense of how the struggles, or those struggling, relate to the State. From a total negation of everything and after meeting to evaluate the need to understand that the State still retains much popular support, and ultimately, at this stage of capitalism, what is at stake is what remains of the public, including what remains of individuals, so from the social standpoint there is often a question of defending distinct aspects of the State, such as the things we can get from it. I believe that in that way there was maturation.

I think there has been maturation in terms of how to obtain or not obtain financing by the government, to have an alternative that is one hundred percent economically autonomous, without receiving government money that involves a clientalistic relationship, and in that way I think there has been maturity. One can receive government money without it generating a political condition. We can maintain our own agendas in the movements and assemblies and yet have a relationship of some kind to the State.

The tools we use are forged according to the necessity of the struggle. I think the assembly as a method, building consensus, constructing horizontally and maintaining the struggle’s autonomy are something that cannot be easily erased, and more grows than is deleted. That the movements that were benchmark and today are weak does not mean that the underlying social fact is weakened; that is very different.

I do not think there is a contradiction anymore than the permanent contradiction of being anti-capitalist in a capitalist world

Marina: And with regard to autonomy?

Our vision of autonomy is based on the strong territorial presence and strong political independence of the organization in the sense that the sovereignty of our decisions is the people in each village assembly. We will not allow the State, political parties, businesses, the church, or anyone to violate the political sovereignty of our assemblies, therefore our organization. Now that does not mean we cannot have a dialogue or relationship with the Church or the State, because they exist, they are real, because they interfere in our lives and so we can set up specific issues, and in the case of the State, the state exists and captures the workers’ money so I do not think there is any contradiction in obtaining financing for our projects provided they do not violate our principles and collective decisions.

Marina: Do you participate in regional and national movements in defense of the environment?

Yes, we participate in the Union of Citizen Assemblies, better known by its initials, UAC. The National UAC holds national meetings twice a year in different parts of the country where they bring together popular assemblies, social movements, specific groups of artists, feminists, environmentalists from all around the country to horizontally discuss the problems of the advance of multinationals and State repression in the territories, as the State is often a partner of these companies in the territories.

The National UAC is another daughter of 2001 because the UAC arose from the popular assemblies in the 2001 – 2003 process. The UAC is also divided into regions and we are in the coastal region so we also have several meetings during the year and there we meet with social organizations and popular assemblies of the coastal region to discuss specific issues in our region, i.e. the provinces that are neighbors of Corrientes. That is a very important speaking space for us, it is not the only one, but is the one we are ideologically and politically closer to and feel more identified with their history of struggle for their organizations and by very emphatically having horizontalism and absolute independence from NGOs, political parties and states. The UAC is very sharp in the sense of being completely horizontal and independent.

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Harvard action in support of the movement in Corrientes.