Uruguay’s new environment minister: “I want a ministry that it makes itself respected”

In an exclusive interview, Uruguay's new environment minister Adrián Peña spoke to Dialogo Chino about the debate over GMO crops and sustainable agriculture

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Adrián Peña, the head of Uruguay’s new environment ministry, speaks with Diálogo Chino in Montevideo (image: María Paz Sartori)

Adrián Peña, the head of Uruguay’s new environment ministry, looks at the paper planner in his office in the government tower in downtown Montevideo, the same building where President Luis Lacalle Pou's office is located, but five floors down.  

He counts back through the pages of his planner and notes: "I have been an environmentalist for 129 days". He smiles and immediately clarifies that this is a joke. Peña says that heading Uruguay's recently created Ministry of the Environment has “changed his vision of things".

Peña is a native of San Bautista, a city of scarcely 2,000 inhabitants in the southern department of Canelones, 60 kilometres from Montevideo. A business administration graduate and former entrepreneur in the poultry industry, he is a member of the Colorado Party, part of the right-wing coalition led by the National Party.

In an exclusive interview, Peña spoke with Diálogo Chino about enhancing Uruguay’s reputation as a country of sustainable agriculture, the creation of new marine protected areas and encouraging more rigorous criteria for approving new GM crops.

Diálogo Chino (DC): From politician and business administrator to head of a new environment ministry in a country that bases its international image on the environment, do you feel that you carry a lot of responsibility?

Adrián Peña (AP): Yes, and I feel it very strongly. That is to say, I feel that there are things that I cannot decide without having certain information, studies, because the issues I am resolving are very important. I feel that responsibility in the decisions I take, such as when I decided not to not approve new GM crops. 

DC: You are referring to the fact that you did not support the government’s decision to approve seven new GMOs...

AP: I didn’t have sufficient information. There is a technical discussion about whether that information is legally relevant. The Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries (MGAP) believes only the seed should be analysed. So I say, why am I here? Because our ministry has nothing to do with the seed, we have to see other things. And I, the minister of the environment, cannot sign if I am not certain. I explained this to the President. 

DC: You have proposed that the environment ministry and the ministry that looks after production work more closely...

AP: If I don't have this information I won't be able to approve new GMOs. If the objective is for the whole cabinet to sign it, they have to help me with that information...We are going to work with universities on this. 

DC: What do you propose in your link with academia?

AP: I told MGAP that our Ministry of Environment wants to make a lot of progress on GMOs and agrochemicals. We can do this in alliance with them, which is what I am asking, and if not, we will do it anyway. We have to study the principles of how they affect the soil, how they are applied, and how they affect biodiversity. 

DC: What are the main issues the ministry will address [aside from GMO]?

AP: The most important thing is to create a ministry with a personality. Society and the economic and productive sector must know that we have a Ministry of the Environment that will be considered in decision-making and that the opinion of the ministry counts. We will not have the resources that others have or the facilities, but there is a ministry standing its ground. Otherwise, there is no point in having a ministry.

In the medium term I have specific objectives such as improving water in two ways: for drinking and for the management of water resources. It is something that perhaps is not valued much but if undertaken it will have a very important economic and productive impact. Uruguay today has a water deficit because it doesn’t manage its resources well. I also want to work on waste management and sustainable development. 

DC: In the past, technicians from the National Directorate of the Environment have stated that the political and economic pressures were more important than taking care of the environment...  

AP: This has to be the big change. 

DC: You have already had visits from companies and NGOs...

AP: The interests and pressures will always be there. They will continue to exist and it is only natural that this should be the case. It doesn't scare me. I want to create a ministry with a personality that makes itself respected, that when it gives its opinion on issues it does so properly, with technical support. We have valuable people. I want to generate a culture that what we do matters.

DC: You have said that a good part of the future lies in being able to measure what is done, to measure, to comply with international certifications. Is part of your strategy to show what is being done in numbers?

AP: My university education is in management. I was taught that what is not measured does not exist. So there is room for improvement, yes, but how much? For that, we have to measure water, soil and biodiversity. There are measurements but they are disordered. We have to organise all of that so we can begin to certify what the world is asking for. Uruguay must consolidate its position as a natural food producer and an environmentally responsible country and demonstrate this. 

We will not have the resources that others have or the facilities, but there is a ministry standing its ground

DC: How do you make Uruguay's goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP by 2025 compatible with objectives such as the National Meat Institute's (INAC) goal of increasing meat production to one million tonnes in 10 years?

AP: Livestock production is a great challenge. We need the rotation of pastures and rational management. Today, livestock producers, the INAC, and the Rural Association of Uruguay, are concerned about this issue, even more so after the recent episodes in which meat production has been called into question. We need to study emissions more; how much Uruguay captures, measure it, improve it, and demonstrate that improvement.

DC: In the last 15 years of Frente Amplio (left-wing coalition) governments, the flagship environmental achievement has been the transition of the energy matrix and the incorporation of renewables. What is the environmental focus of this new government? Agriculture and the green economy?

AP: Yes, that's it. From the commercial and economic point of view, Uruguay has an opportunity there. The only advantage we can have in the meat market is to certify that more than 70% is produced in natural fields and to label it. If the Economy Ministry gets involved then I can generate mechanisms that promote it. Instruments are needed to encourage sustainable production.

DC: In the area of environmental enforcement, the ministry has limited personnel. It goes to the site to inspect complaints but has little capacity to carry out random checks, for example. When there are sanctions, some people think they are too light. Should this change?

AP: Yes, we have to move forward in partnership with technology to allow us to control more. This is one of the things we want to do with academia. Also, China is offering us the technology to measure air quality. A decree to establish minimums and maximums on air pollution is about to be issued. In terms of human capacity, yes, we have restrictions and we are going to try to strengthen some areas. 

DC: There is illegal fishing in Uruguayan waters. The navy has publicly spoken about the difficulties in controlling maritime space due to the lack of adequate vessels. Meanwhile, scientists demand more funding for research on oceanographic issues. Uruguay does not have exclusively marine protected areas but some specific ones that cover some of the coast and waters while the international community pushes for more. What is your opinion on this situation?

AP: It's a big issue. In terms of protected areas, the idea is to have a specific marine protected area in front of Rocha (in eastern Uruguay, close to Brazil) that would incorporate 10% of the national territorial sea and work with artisanal and industrial fishermen. The proposal comes from an NGO and is being refined. The recommendation is for 30% of marine protected areas. This would represent our first advance. Recently, the US ambassador was here and offered to help us get one more boat, it's a question of resources.