Cablegate: Environmental Awareness in Argentina Brings New Resources,


DE RUEHBU #0102/01 0301603
R 301603Z JAN 08





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The Argentine public is paying attention to
environmental issues like never before, but measurable progress has
been lacking to date. Argentina faces several major environmental
challenges: overexploitation of its land resources, which leads to
deforestation, desertification, and a loss of biodiversity; rapid
urbanization, accompanied by increased pollution and the threat of
climate change; and irresponsible use of its water resources,
through overexploitation of fisheries and pollution of freshwater
sources. The federal government has outlined ambitious new
environmental plans, but some argue these have eroded the ability to
deal with problems on the local and provincial level. Legislators
have passed hundreds of environmental laws, but many of those laws
are ill-conceived and few of them include provisions for
implementation and enforcement. Protestors attract news by blocking
bridges to Uruguay over the Botnia paper mill, but they reject most
any report that says the mill is not polluting and neglect to
protest very dirty mills further upstream and elsewhere in
Argentina. Encouragingly, corporate social responsibility efforts
and private sector conservation projects have achieved some real
results. Major increases in tourist traffic, while presenting a new
set of environmental challenges, have also occasioned new
opportunities for sustainable development and environmental
progress. End Summary.


2. (U) Argentina is so vast, and seems so empty, that it is almost
surprising that the land is vulnerable to overexploitation.
According to the NGO Vida Silvestre, the World Wildlife Fund's
Argentine affiliate, more than 80% of Argentine territory is used
for agriculture, animal husbandry, and forestry. Land conservation
is consequently a key priority of environmentalists. Approximately
6.8% of Argentine territory is currently protected with an
impressive system of national parks; however, 44% of protected areas
are not monitored or controlled at all. Experts at a World Bank
conference on sustainable development called Argentina a "green
desert," acknowledging that overexploitation of the land is
contributing to desertification in many areas. The survival of
native forests is also a major concern, with deforestation occurring
at a rate of approximately 250,000 hectares per year. Argentina's
biodiversity is further threatened as many plant and animal species
lose their native habitat.

3. (U) Argentina's air emissions remain low in comparison to other
countries, but climate change has gained the attention of
Argentina's scientists and environmentalists. Although Argentina
may not be a major part of the problem, climate change could have
devastating effects on Argentina. The western regions rely heavily
on snowmelt from the Andes to provide the water resources they need,
while weather changes in the Rio de la Plata basin would likely
contribute to an increase in natural disasters like floods.
Argentine environmentalists are also conscious of the fact that
Argentina's rapid urban expansion is contributing to a rise in
pollution of all kinds, including emissions.

4. (U) Since Argentina's "fishery boom" in the 1990s,
overexploitation of fisheries has seriously depleted ocean species
such as hake, and freshwater species such as river herring. One of
the starkest examples of the effect of pollution on freshwater
resources is in the city of Buenos Aires, which is bisected by the
Riachuelo River. Approximately 3.5 million people live in the river
basin, but only 45% have sewers and only 65% have access to potable
water. In addition, more than 800 factories dump their waste
directly into the river.

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5. (SBU) Environmental consciousness has been rising significantly
among average Argentine citizens. A recent poll distributed to
8,000 Argentine youths through the collaborative efforts of several
NGOs and government agencies found that the environment is the issue
of greatest concern to young Argentines today. NGOs such as
Greenpeace reportedly collected a million signatures on a petition
presented to the Argentine Congress and led major rallies in late
2007 in support of legislation aimed at curtailing logging in native
forests (which was passed). Argentines have clearly begun to worry
about the environmental health of their homeland.

6. (SBU) In one of the most publicly visible environmental cases of
the year, a protest movement has strongly objected to the
construction of the Botnia pulp mill on the River Uruguay, alleging

it will cause environmental, olfactory, and visual pollution in what
they contend is a sensitive ecological and tourist area. However,
the environmental impact of the plant is controversial. Most
analysts agree with the IFC's comprehensive cumulative impact study,
reviewed by independent experts, which concludes that the mills
"compare favorably with best available technology and best
environmental practice for mills in Europe and North America" and
that "there should be no significant deterioration in the air and
water quality in the area." In fact, many observers predict that
the Botnia plant will have a net positive effect on the cleanliness
of the river -- in addition to scrubbing its own wastewater, the
Botnia operator has reportedly offered to treat the wastewater of a
nearby town, as well as waste products emanating from an existing
pulp plant. There are currently ten Argentine paper mills operating
with older and more polluting technology than that to be employed by

7. (SBU) Comment: This relatively new public interest in
environmental issues bodes well for Argentina's future. Although
most Argentines have only superficial knowledge of environmental
issues, they are beginning to pay attention. Grassroots efforts
have focused attention on key environmental problems, such as
deforestation. The downside of the new environmental buzz is an
unfortunate tendency towards fear-mongering. NGO Vida Silvestre's
Diego Moreno noted that the Argentine public is far more focused on
negative issues -- pollution, contamination, and disaster -- than
positive issues like conservation and biodiversity. The Botnia pulp
mill protests are a perfect example of this phenomenon: the public's
interest in preserving the river is positive, but both the methods
of the protestors and their claims about the environmental impact of
the mill are open to question, to say the least.


8. (SBU) The 2006 appointment of the energetic Romina Picolotti as
the Secretary of the Environment by Nestor Kirchner has given the
Environment Secretariat a higher profile and more clout within the
administration. Picolotti was a leading protestor of the Botnia
pulp mill, and her appointment seemed to be the GOA's direct
response to the public's fascination with the issue. With a larger
budget, the Environment Secretariat has increased the number of
uniformed environmental inspectors from three to 250 during
Picolotti's tenure. While this is an obvious improvement, these
figures also show how far things have to go to reach an acceptable
level of oversight in a country as large as Argentina. In addition,
some observers believe that the higher profile of the Secretary of
the Environment has resulted in an erosion of environmental
authority on the provincial level. Sebastian Bigorito, President of
the Argentine Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEADS),
believes that the emphasis on federal solutions at the expense of
local solutions has led to a "loss of institutional quality" at the
local level.

9. (SBU) Environmental issues are "fashionable" among Argentine
legislators at the moment, Bigorito told Emboff. But despite the
huge increase in the number of environmental bills introduced in
2007 (approximately 350, compared with a few dozen five years ago),
legislators have little knowledge of the issues at stake. "They
believe that environmental problems can be legislated away," says
Bigorito. However, the infrastructure for applying and enforcing
most environmental laws does not exist. Monica Gabay, an official
in the Forestry Bureau of the Secretary of the Environment, agreed
that most such legislation has "no accountability" and little chance
of effective implementation. The GOA and provinces took a real step
forward in May with the creation of Argentina's first prosecutorial
office dedicated to tackling cases of environmental crime (Reftel).
Part of the prosecutors' mandate is to train provincial officials,
very few of whom have had any experience fighting environmental
crime. That office has only 18 prosecutors, and it has yet to
secure a conviction, but it is a beginning.


10. (SBU) Environmental developments in the private sector are more
promising. An increasing number of companies -- especially large,
international corporations -- have incorporated environmental and
sustainable development commitments into their business models.
American companies such as Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, Ford, and Unilever
are all members of CEADS. That organization's president, Sebastian
Bigorito, says that the "evolution" of environmental consciousness
among many companies has led to greater "eco-efficiency" -- the

responsible use of natural resources -- among other positive

11. (SBU) Private sector emphasis on environmental sustainability
has also led to an increase in the number of students electing to
specialize in environmental studies. Environmentally focused
positions in NGOs, large corporations, and international
organizations are coveted by young Argentines, according to Maria
del Carmen Galloni, Director of Environmental Studies at UCES
university. Galloni told Emboff that greater numbers of engineers,
lawyers, and consultants of all kinds are enrolling in specialized
environmental graduate and post-graduate programs at the university,
and attributed the growth of the program to greater environmental

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12. (SBU) Tourism in Argentina has skyrocketed in recent years,
increasing 115% between 1990 and 2006. Eco-tourism is particularly
popular. Secretary of Tourism Carlos Enrique Meyer noted that 34%
of visitors to Argentina's national parks are foreigners. Although
increased tourist traffic can put stress on delicate ecosystems, the
tourism boom has had numerous positive results. The GOA has
developed a Strategic National Plan for Sustainable Tourism, which
includes provisions to increase protected land areas by 10% by 2015.
However, even the most famous tourist attractions remain
vulnerable. For example, the international press recently reported
that the famous Iguazu Falls area is being polluted by untreated
wastewater that is dumped directly into the river.

13. (SBU) Tourism provides "an interesting opportunity" for
conservation efforts, says Diego Moreno of Vida Silvestre. The fame
of national treasures like Perito Moreno Glacier and Iguazu Falls
draws attention to important environmental issues and teaches
Argentines to value their natural heritage. The burgeoning
popularity of eco-tourism and adventure tourism has also allowed
private land-owners to use their land in non-traditional ways.
Tourist dollars (or euros) provide an incentive to preserve land for
activities such as trekking, horse-back riding, rafting,
hang-gliding, and guesthouses, rather than exploit the land for
other types of economic gain.


14. (SBU) The current environmental situation in Argentina inspires
both hope and frustration in the growing group of individuals who
are paying attention. The most promising developments are the
efforts of dedicated and knowledgeable NGOs and a growing
environmental consciousness in the private sector. Frustrations
arise from the extravagant but unimplemented environmental promises
of legislators and the Secretary of Environment, which will likely
remain unfulfilled unless the GOA develops mechanisms to enforce its
laws and carry out its projects. Ultimately, if environmental
issues continue to hold the attention of the average Argentine
citizen, then the future of the environment in Argentina will look

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