Climate and Energy

Opinion: In a new era for Argentina, environmentalists must stay strong

Many hard-won gains of recent decades may be undone by new government, but decades of development failures must also be confronted, writes NGO director Manuel Jaramillo
<p>‘Climate action now’ reads a placard at a protest in Buenos Aires, September 2021. Argentine NGO Fundación Vida Silvestre says that as the country&#8217;s natural environment continues to be degraded it is losing its capacity to respond to crises. (Image: Carolina Jaramillo Castro / Alamy)</p>

‘Climate action now’ reads a placard at a protest in Buenos Aires, September 2021. Argentine NGO Fundación Vida Silvestre says that as the country’s natural environment continues to be degraded it is losing its capacity to respond to crises. (Image: Carolina Jaramillo Castro / Alamy)

In 2023, Argentina celebrated 40 years since its return to democracy in an extremely complex socio-economic situation – a situation that has unfortunately tended to be a recurrent one for the country.

In these four decades we have faced three major crises that have led to repeated changes in our currency, with each change leading to a continuous devaluation. Our country has managed to recover from these crises, and this recovery has been based on its bio-capacity: its nature and its natural resources. However, despite our economic resilience, our nature is being degraded and we are losing this capacity to respond that has allowed us to overcome each crisis. 

The process of desertification in Patagonia is advancing, driven by overgrazing and exacerbated by climate change. The productive capacity of Argentina’s agricultural heartland, the Pampas, is decreasing, because we take more from the land than we replenish. Our seas are being overfished due to a lack of regulations and controls, while native forests are disappearing at a rate of 200,000 hectares per year, with three quarters of this deforestation being illegal. Fish in our rivers are decreasing in size and abundance, and have high levels of chemical contamination. The conversion of natural environments, without adequate territorial planning, is fragmenting and isolating populations of vulnerable and endangered species.

For years, many environmental organisations have fought to demonstrate how production and conservation are compatible. But stepping back and taking stock, we find that overall, beyond specific examples worthy of recognition, environmental degradation has advanced and the level of production has increased, all while the country and society have become poorer.

Vista aérea de un inc
Aerial view of fires in the Paraná River Delta in the Argentine province of Entre Ríos, in September 2020. The advance of land conversion for livestock and real estate projects are among the causes of the fires in this part of the country. (Image © Eduardo Bodiño / Greenpeace)

My organisation, Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina, worked hard over many years, together with various groups, so that our country could have an environment ministry that would participate at the same level as those of production, agriculture, health and education, among others; one that would build a state policy aimed at sustainable development and articulate its implementation, under clear presidential leadership. But though this structure was realised, our society also failed to achieve the objective for which it was conceived.

It is not my role to analyse the multiple factors that may have led to these recurrent failures, but to propose alternatives so that the new development model is truly sustainable – that is to say that it really is development, not just a transfer of resources associated with environmental and social liabilities.

Our national constitution establishes that natural resources are of national sovereignty, but of provincial jurisdiction. The national government has the obligation to define the minimum standards on which the provinces must legislate and manage their resources, and is the highest level in the environmental hierarchy, the enforcement authority for a range of national laws and international treaties.

Argentina’s new national administration has already overseen a sharp reduction in the number of ministries, with the environment ministry one of those to be dissolved. Given the link between its areas of focus and the provinces, it is not illogical that the environment has been incorporated into the work of the Ministry of the Interior. The grouping of tourism, environment and sports in the same secretariat and the ministry’s relegation to a sub-secretariat for environmental issues does, however, come as a surprise.

Analysis of the presidential decree that set out the changes to ministries and reallocation of their functions has outlined that responsibility for environmental issues will be distributed across various portfolios. The secretariats of bioeconomy and of energy, and the new Ministry of Human Capital will surely have to assign their own teams to environmental issues and, of course, coordinate with the new sub-secretariat of the environment.

When the new national administration took office, Marcia Levaggi, a representative of the foreign ministry with great experience and recognition in climate negotiations, was assigned to lead the Argentine delegation in the last days of the COP28 summit in the United Arab Emirates. Vida Silvestre, was able to hold a meeting with her, where we were informed of Argentina’s will to remain in the Paris Agreement and associated commitments. This is undoubtedly a reassuring step in understanding the direction that the new national administration has decided to give to the management of the environment.

Now more than ever, we must understand that development at the expense of the environment and people is not development
Manuel Jaramillo, Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina

With so many of our compatriots living below the poverty line, a high level of debt, a huge supply of pesos, and scarce reserves in our central bank, we face a very challenging near future. However, now more than ever, we must understand that development at the expense of the environment and people is not development.

Argentina can and must use its capacity and knowledge to position itself in an international market that is increasingly hungry for products of sustainable origin, with a low carbon footprint and a positive environmental and social impact. Beyond government structures, we need officials who are up to the challenge. Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina will be there to accompany the necessary processes, and to warn against approaches that it considers to be wrong, in order to achieve the true development of our country.