While Chile, which shares a border with Argentina, has been in the news for the presidential victory of Leftist Gabriel Boric, Argentina’s countrywide protests have fallen off the mainstream radar—workers and environmentalists are fighting for the most important environmental and social regulation of the decade. And thousands of people are taking to the streets in Argentina to protest the International Monetary Fund, urging the government to not recognise the $44bn debt that could drive them to starvation. How did this begin? And what does this mean for the future of climate justice?
The law in question—what it entails, and why it’s necessary
On 2nd December 2021, Buenos Aires was filled with demonstrations by workers under UTEP, a union of excluded workers, environmentalists, and other civil society organisations, to demand the passing of the Law of Packaging with Social Inclusion.
Argentina has a major waste problem: there are about 5,000 open dumps and irregular final disposal sites across the country. According to data from the recyclers’ organizations, 50,000 tons of waste is produced every day in Argentina. Half of that ends up in one of the 5,000 dumps in the country or a sanitary landfill. More than 150,000 poor waste collectors, who prevent the system from collapsing, live and work in terrible conditions, are exposed to these toxic landfill discharges, without access to toilets, personal protection, hygiene and drinking water for hydration.
The Packaging Law aims at environmentally and socially sustainable management of packaging where the manufacturer’s responsibility for the product extends to the stage after its consumption, to its final disposal. Its distinctive feature? Big corporations are expected to design products that respect the environment *and* workers. The creation of an “environmental tax and fund for the management of packaging and inclusive recycling” ensures that all damage and extra costs are absorbed by the polluting firms, not consumers.
It is the “Social Inclusion” bit that differentiates this Law of Packaging with Social Inclusion from Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP), which, on its own, is relatively limited in its scope and tends to centralise power/control by excluding waste pickers and the informal economy from its setup. If not closely monitored, this can have the reverse effect of marginalising affected workers.
A few other countries have also tried to implement laws that address environmental and social concerns—France managed to unanimously adopt a comprehensive Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law in 2020, and there is evidence that companies, including multinationals, have already started to comply with its measures. Singapore hopes to have producer responsibility laws in place for both packaging and electronic waste by 2025, which begin with companies efficiently reporting the amount and type of packaging they use. In 2018, India tried to ban plastics and increase producer accountability but was opposed by an industry lobby after which proceedings were suspended. All lobbyists tell the same distracting story (read on to find out).
What do the urban recyclers have to say about this law that directly affects them?
Urban recyclers, better known as cartoneros, have been at the forefront of protests demanding for the law to be passed. They’re some of the most disproportionately disadvantaged by the effects of climate change and are tired of seeing Pepsi, Coca-Cola and other big corporations say yes to plastics that continue to worsen their living conditions. Already, there’s a giant plastic patch in the northern pacific ocean three times the size of France.
Most importantly, they demand work guarantees that are secure and stable. Less than a month ago, UTEP released a statement expressing strong urgency for consolidated action towards a just transition:
“This law is not only groundbreaking for the sector but could become a cornerstone for the country’s environmental policy. It is of utmost importance to dignify the work of the recyclers who, every day, recover tons of waste, often in the more than 5,000 open-air dumps that exist in our territory.
The Social Inclusion Packaging Act, based on the principle of Extended Responsibility to the Producer (REP), will serve to create and dignify jobs in municipalities and reduce the pollution caused by packaging that companies. Plus, it will prevent waste from ending up in open landfills or sanitary fillings, replace natural resource extraction, and save energy.”
What’s stopping them: America’s greenwashed sabotage
Towards the end of November last year, a representative from the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) came with “gifts” for Argentine congressman: trips to Washington in the same week that the Packaging Law was supposed to be passed.
AmCham is an independent organisation present in nearly every country which defends the interests of US multinationals. In this context, US firms like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, leading plastic-packing companies, are openly against the Packaging Law.
Juan Grabois, a lawyer and a leader of UTEP, writes, “This illustrates how a transnational lobby operates in the Global South, against socio-environmental regulations and against any political action in defence of ecological practices, as well as against national sovereignty and the public interest that should bind corporations.
As soon as AmCham realized that the Packaging Law could pose a danger to the profits of companies they represent in Argentina, they set the machinery in motion to undermine the law. The same Argentine media that praised the law days before AmCham got into the action now rant against it; deputies who had voted for the law in the committees now reversed their vote as soon as their offices were flooded with invitations to Washington, D.C.”
Essentially, AmCham’s demand is for massive polluters to remain unregulated. Or, to pay their way into greenwashed regulations so that they can continue their destructive supply chains. As this lobbying continues, discussions regarding the law have come to a standstill. Like Grabois worryingly notes, “Society and governments must stop this crazy runaway train.”
Relatedly: protests against IMF debt deals
All of this is happening while Argentina is in the midst of negotiating with the IMF to restructure a $44bn debt, which dates back to 2018 when the Fund gave the amount to Argentina’s previous neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri. It has since failed to stabilise the economy.
For context: more than half of the children in the country don’t have enough to eat. In fact, over the last year alone, prices of essential goods have increased by 52%. In a country where over 40% of the population is living below the poverty line, hundreds of student organisations, environmental rights groups and trade unions are rallying for more attention to be paid to socio-economic issues within the country.
“The influence of the IMF on the policies in Argentina has been very clear many times,” Martin Kalos, an Argentine economist shared. He said those policies “didn’t end up mitigating moments of crisis and in some cases, helped put us in crisis”. This is unsurprising when we take a look at IMF’s structure. While today’s government has inherited this crisis from the previous leadership, the overarching cause for the country’s lack of stability lies in the way IMF operates.
Apartheid and plutocracy within IMF
The Fund is one of the main institutions governing global economic policy, and its structure is inherently undemocratic: the leaders of IMF are not elected but nominated by the US and Europe. The president of the IMF has always been European. Voting power is skewed heavily in favour of rich countries: the US has veto power over all significant decisions and middle- and low-income countries, which together constitute 85% of the world’s population, have a minority share of votes.
According to Jason Hickel’s harrowing research, “For every vote that the average person in the global North has, the average person in the global South has only one-eighth of a vote.” This has allowed dangerous decisions to pass without the consent of the affected economies.
Let’s not forget that the financial burden of these debts falls on ordinary people who are already suffering from the combined effects of climate change and vaccine apartheid, which has been aggravating and prolonging the global pandemic, with big capitalist powers hoarding vaccines and blocking waivers on Intellectual Property Rights at WTO that allow countries of the Global South to manufacture their own vaccines/medicines.
Further, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Pfizer has been abusing its power by making demands with officials from Argentina, and delaying deals on life-saving vaccines during the country’s economic crisis. “Pfizer misbehaved with Argentina. Its intolerance with us was tremendous,” said Ginés González Garcia, former minister of health.
How does this affect Argentina?
The Fund is not interested in addressing or even acknowledging the root causes of Argentina’s poverty and financial instability. This is the same revolting institution that pressured the Indian government to take away farming aid and subsidy regimes in 1991, the absence of which continues to gravely affect farmers’ conditions to this day. This is the same institution that Algeria doesn’t want to repeat history with—they’re going at great lengths to avoid taking funding again because asking for monetary aid involves having to agree to assisting demands/reforms made by the Fund.
Providing loans without building scaffolds that can uphold the society during times of crises, thereby driving countries further into debt, represents a colonial mentality of dependence and miserable control that stems from unequal power. Truly promising structures involve redirecting money to ensuring everyone in the country at least has food on their table.
Economy Minister Martín Guzmán says the economic proposal by the IMF as part of a US$40-billion debt renegotiation would derail the country’s recovery. To put it plainly, the IMF’s “proposal” is one of halting economic recovery that Argentina has been witnessing, and cutting spending on public works, state employees, pensions, etc in order to pay back the debt by the deadline.
If this feels like déjà vu, it’s because the last time something like this happened to Argentina was as recent as 2018, when the government imposed an IMF-backed plan to slash public spending and pay debt. IMF has been *making* Argentina dependent on its monetary aid and cutting back state funding when it’s most needed. What’s worse, Martin Guzman, Argentina’s economic minister, announced that Argentina does not have enough international support at the IMF to reach a deal in its favour.
As of now
Negotiations are still underway, but the current government knows better than to repeat the previous leadership’s mistakes. As of now, Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Economy Minister Martín Guzmán have agreed not to give in to the loan.President Alberto Fernández has also demanded for the IMF to exempt Argentina from the payment of surcharges, and to grant longer repayment terms. If the surcharges are corrected, Argentina’s debt goes down a lot.
It’s very clear that paying this debt is incompatible with ending poverty. The people of Argentina ask that this question be put to them in a referendum. Trade unions are calling for fairer wages and for the budget to be redirected to better healthcare, housing and education—they want an agreement does not suffocate the country.
Living in the intersections of climate and workers’ struggles
Argentina’s case shows that the struggles of workers and environmentalists, especially under the pandemic, are intimately linked, and the strength of one depends hugely on how much they lend solidarity to, and grow from, each other.
As Audre Lorde wrote in her speech Learning from the 60s, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Asad Rehman, the organiser for climate justice and co-founder of COP26 Coalition echoes this when he says, “We have spent years and years building the movement, making the argument that this is a systemic crisis, that it is about racialised capitalism, making the case that you cannot understand the climate crisis without understanding that there is an arch from slavery to colonialism and imperialism to the climate crisis.”
As we continue to organise for climate justice, there is a growing need for our movements to find ways to connect with ordinary people and bring in other organisations, student groups and trade unions, who are advocating for better rights and living conditions. Find, follow and support these movements in your region, in whatever capacity you can: join/donate/amplify. To keep up with the demands and struggles of workers in Argentina, follow @utep_oficial on instagram (@UTEPoficial on twitter)—they’re a union of workers with the aim to “conquer the rights that neoliberalism took from us” and they’re here to stay. We must learn from their example and grow intersectional solidarity networks that are well-nourished, resilient and safe.
FEATURED IMAGE: Via Al Jazeera / IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Protesters hold a banner that says ‘The debt is with the people, not the IMF’ as they rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Sunday, December 11, 2021
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