South American Stories (2): Reclaiming the Riachuelo
The basin of the Riachuelo river in Buenos Aires is home to nearly five million people, and it has been polluted for 500 years, ever since the Spanish first erected tanneries on its banks. Until 2004, nobody expected any change in that situation. As the new millennium began, the river’s surface was matted with debris, and the river was littered with 53 abandoned ships, not to mention old cars, bathtubs, dead horses and other stuff you don’t want to know about.
But then a lawyer named Daniel Sallaberry, acting for 17 families living in shanty-towns on the river, brought a suit to Argentina’s Supreme Court. The suit alleged that the negligence of the federal government, the provincial government, 17 municipalities and 44 industries had combined to damage the residents’ health, and had undercut their constitutional right to a healthy environment.
The Supreme Court held an unprecedented set of hearings, and in 2008, it handed down a landmark decision not just for Argentina, but for the world. In a judgment that one observer called “sweeping and poetic,” the court ruled that government and industry had indeed infringed the residents’ right to a healthy environment, and were obliged to repair the damage. A new multi-jurisdictional organization called ACUMAR was created to deal with the problem. ACUMAR’s task was to remove the industrial pollution, clean up the landfills, provide potable water to the residents, install proper sewage systems and storm drainage, create an emergency health plan, move riverbank residents into proper social housing, and keep the public informed about its progress. The work would be supervised by a citizens’ group and by a judge to whom ACUMAR would make regular reports – with penalties to be imposed for delays.
Six years later, the Riachuelo is far from clean – but it’s a long way from what it was. Landfills have been cleaned up, most of the junk is out of the river, two hundred families have been moved into new housing, and — where their shanties once stood — a linear riverbank park, planted with native trees, is giving the river back to the city and its citizens. The river still reeks, a number of corporations have failed to live up to their responsibilities, and some tough questions remain unanswered – for example, the disposal of the toxic sediments at the river bottom.
The Riachuelo is still a dirty urban river, but it gets a little cleaner every day. And, as an example of what can be done, it has shifted the thinking of communities across the country, and around the world.
In our visit to Buenos Aires, The Green Interview interviewed Daniel Sallaberry and journalist Marina Aizen (who has written a book about the Riachuelo). We also drank mate with riverside shanty-town residents, toured the river with representatives of the Buenos Aires government, interviewed the Ombudsman of Argentina and officials from ACUMAR, and talked to leaders of local environmental organizations, including the Argentinian branch of Greenpeace. We held discussions in English and in Spanish. We’ve toured the river by land, and by water, aboard a garbage scow – on which we were assailed by rocks thrown by shanty-town residents.
In short, we looked at every aspect of this fascinating story – and we filmed it all. The Riachuelo story will make a remarkable short documentary – and a memorable chapter in the full-length GreenRights film.
Next: South American Stories (3): Quito: Trials and Tribunals