The Politics of Resonance: Transnational Sustainability Governance in Argentina

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Framing Sustainability: Politics, Antagonism, and Distrust

This section explains the previous participation profile in light of three political-cultural conditions interfering with the salience of sustainability initiatives in Argentina since the early 2000s: (i) the politicized model of state-society relations favored by the Kirchner governments, (ii) the low public visibility of environmental matters, and (iii) a lingering and widespread anti-corporate sentiment.

  1. Kirchnerism and Corporatism

The consolidation of transnational sustainability governance in the 2000s coincided in Argentina with the arrival to power a post-crisis administration that rejected neoliberal policies and pro-market discourses. Since 2003, President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and later his wife, President Cristina Fernández (2007-2015), successfully advanced a neo-developmental model based on a left-wing Peronist ‘rhetoric that recalls the welfare state and the import substitution era of the 1940s yet remains committed in important respects to open markets and export-led growth’ (Riggirozzi, 2009, p. 89).13 A central pillar of this model was reaffirming the position of the state, eroded under the neoliberal Menem administrations in the 1990s, as core regulator of economic activity and central intermediary in collective relations (Etchemendy and Collier, 2007).

A consequence of this approach was the exclusive politicization of a number of social spheres relevant to sustainability governance along the lines of the governmental rhetoric. This further restricted key regulatory areas, such as human and labor rights, as a valid competency of private regulation. In Argentina, human rights were already a sensitive issue that reverberated with the traumatic experience of the crimes committed during the last military dictatorship (1976-1983) (Jelin, 1994). The campaign for the prosecution of those involved in state terrorism brought the Argentine human rights movement international recognition, but the issue remained problematic in light of pardon laws passed in the 1990s (Peruzzotti, 2001; Sikkink, 2008). However, since 2003 the Kirchner government pursued an active ‘politics of memory’ agenda, pushing forward significant transitional justice measures and progressive policies. This gained the government the strong backing of important sectors of local civil society, and facilitated the co-optation of leading civil society representatives into its political project, as it happened with some leaders of the influential Madres de Playa de Mayo group (Levitsky and Murillo, 2008). In the process, the discourse and agenda of human rights became increasingly articulated with the Peronist-nationalist rhetoric emanating from the government, resulting in a situation where ‘the imprint of human rights discourse is not only present in public demonstrations and protests, politicians’ speeches, and cultural productions but [is] part of urban landscape’ (Sutton, 2015, p. 83). This accentuated an endogamous framing of human rights matters that limited the reach of alternative advocacy agendas. As Engstrom (2013, p. 136) notes, ‘the association of the vocabulary of human rights with military abuses of the past has often made it difficult to mobilize the human rights discourse around pressing contemporary challenges’.

The detrimental effect of the politicization of human rights in relation to sustainability was underlined by Jorge Taillant, the Director of CEHDA, the only Argentine NGO with a senior consultative role in one of the global initiatives. Since its foundation in 1999, CEHDA promoted legal reforms aimed at regulating the human rights responsibilities of firms, and at complementing environmental and human rights law. By 2011 however, Taillant acknowledged that linking human rights with corporate governance was ‘an impossible task’ in Argentina, due to the level and type of politicization of the issue, and the resistance that a private governance approach generated not only among government officials but also in civil society and academic circles (CEDHA, 2011, pers. comm., 14 September). This led his organization to abandon this strategy, aimed at influencing Argentine actors and laws, and to focus on shaping international regulatory frameworks, in particular the conditions attached to IFC loans for developing countries.

Simultaneously, this framing was noticed to limit the reach of human rights in private regulation in Argentina to issues of workplace rights and entitlements (Newell and Muro, 2006, p. 62). However, this poses a second challenge for the sustainability frame as it conflicts with a lasting neo-corporatist approach in Argentine industrial relations, in particular under Peronist governments (Romero, 2002). Argentina is a country historically characterized by an asymmetric industrial relations system, where a highly centralized labor movement, presided by the CGT union confederation – with strong ideological and institutional links with Peronist parties such as the Kirchners’ – faces weak and fragmented industry federations (Ross Schneider, 2004). Moreover, since its arrival the Kirchner government supported the reconsolidation of labor power, reversing labor flexibilisation laws, endorsing trade unions during wage negotiations, and consolidating the authority of the CGT as the only trade union organization legally entitled to engage in collective bargaining at the national level (Etchemendy and Collier, 2007).

This neo-corporatist matrix permeates the manner in which private governance projects are approached by both the government and labor. Sustainability governance is largely a competence of the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security, which in 2006 opened a Coordinating Office on CSR and Decent Work. There is also a Sub-secretary of Promotion of Sustainable Development, under the Secretary of Environment. However, its main program, titled ‘Labor and Sustainable Development’, has the CGT as a central partner and is sponsored by the labor ministry and the ILO (SADS, 2012). Relevantly, a recent publication by the Labor ministry, and in particular its prologue written by Minister Carlos Tomada, provides direct insight to the government’s position. In the document, private governance is referenced exclusively in relation to international agreements such as the OECD’s Directives for Multinational Corporations and the ILO’s Declaration on Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, with no mention of other regulatory frameworks. Furthermore, the document questions the applicability of voluntary and private models of regulation to the Argentine context, considering that these issues are better approached from a labor rights perspective where the government, and not private regulators, retains a coordinating role (MdT, 2009).

This corporatist position is stronger in the stance of Argentine trade unions, as revealed by the minutes of a regional workshop on ISO 26000 developments that took place in Brazil in 2009, organized by the Americas-wide labor confederation CSA-TUCA, and the International Trade Union Confederation, and a number of subsequent statements.14 These documents evidence a skeptical and oppositional attitude towards the development of a private social responsibility standard, openly questioning the need for a norm that is voluntary and set by a body that did not conform to ILO tripartism. In a following press release, the CGT denounced the entire ISO SR enterprise as invalid, and extended its rejection to any other initiative intending to privatize and ‘soften’ labor legislation and the legal responsibilities of business. Additionally, it called for other labor organizations and governments to boycott future initiatives, considering that participation weakened international tripartism and national industrial relations institutions. In a later note sent to the ISO SR labor committee, Argentine labor expressed discontent with the advance of the ISO 26000 process. The note ironically praised the ‘triumph’ of the business community in getting governments and workers’ representatives from diverse countries to participate in an initiative legitimizing a ‘[...] new space for the interpretation, shaping, and even the generation, of international social and labor norms’ that would ‘sterilize the ILO’. This note also questioned the ‘global’ character of the norm, and its applicability to the Latin American and Argentine context: in labor’s view, ISO failed to notice that business historically suffered from major ‘cultural deficits’ in the region, having supported in the past authoritarian regimes, lacking independence from the state, and displaying a tendency to be co-opted by foreign interests. Hence, private regulatory frameworks might work in Europe and the US, but were overly optimistic for Argentina.

  1. Environmental Indifference

The second political cultural condition affecting sustainability resonance in the country is the low political relevance of environmental concerns and regulation. Environmental matters have consistently been a tertiary priority for national governments, which since the 1990s have opposed the implementation of international environmental regimes and conventions (Hochstetler, 2002, p. 43). This is a key difference with the case of Brazil and other countries in the region, where environmental cleavages have come to occupy a central position in political debates, ascribing to issues of ethnic politics, natural resources, and rural reform (Viola, 2013). Instead, in Argentina, as Reboratti (2012, p. 5) recently concluded, ‘the diffusion of environmental issues is so limited that there is scarce interest in the topic of the development of natural resources, or of the environmental impacts that this might entail’. The country lacks a Green Party of any significance, nor does it count with influential environmental social movements capable of turning environmental matters into an electoral or public opinion concern, with the most active environmental agents being community-level movements with minimal institutionalization and few contacts with organized civil society, academia, or political parties (Espach, 2009, p. 106). Accordingly, environmental regulatory institutions are poorly developed, and regulatory tasks are left in the hands of weaker provincial authorities. This has contributed to a dysfunctional regulatory system – described by Amengual (2013) as ‘chaotic’ – characterized by the lack of clear institutional responsibilities, enforcement capabilities, and plagued by corruption.15 As a result ‘Argentine environmental institutions have never functioned in the way that any major group would support’ (Amengual, 2013, p. 532).

Moreover, as noted by Newell (2009, p. 275-276), in Argentina technologies and industries capable of exploiting natural resources, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, have been historically covered by a hegemonic discourse that frames these activities as ‘economically significant, socially beneficial, safe, and environmentally benign’. This is a discourse reproduced by actors in different sectors and levels – small and large producers, rural communities, governments of different political extraction, and the media – as well as by firms operating in the sector. This is not surprising in a country (and region) where developmental trajectories remain heavily reliant on exporting agricultural commodities and other primary products, and where the countryside is amply seen as the main national economic endowment.

This stance experienced minimal changes in the 2000s.16 The Kirchner administrations, as many of its regional counterparts, have been tacitly supportive of an extractivist model where agribusiness, oil, biofuel production, forestry, and mining are considered priority industries, capable of generating important hard-currency revenues to be used for developmental and redistributive goals (Svampa and Sola Alvarez, 2010). In spite of its rhetoric, Kirchner administrations maintained an ambivalent position in relation to agribusiness and extractive industries, stalling or not implementing legislation that could jeopardize private investment, such as environmental impact assessment laws and laws for protection of glaciers and water supplies (Gutierrez and Isuani, 2013). Accordingly, all environmental NGOs interviewed expressed critical views of the government’s environmental policy.

This policy approach triggered a new round of localized social conflict between authorities, firms, and civil society groups, in particular in poorer provinces aspiring to capture benefits from mining or agricultural investment. These conflicts were noted to share a pattern where grassroots and civil society organizations oppose corporate projects, provincial governments accuse these groups of irresponsibility and hampering investment, the national government remains indifferent or silent, and companies roll out CSR and community development activities to garner public support and comply with organizational policies (Espach, 2006; García-López and Arizpe, 2010, p. 202). Not surprisingly, in the last five years GRI sustainability reports in Argentina surged, with agribusiness, mining, and energy companies accounting for an important proportion of the total number of reports submitted in the country (GRI, 2015). At the same time, analysts have consistently indicated that Argentine environmental groups and movements perceive CSR and sustainability initiatives as a ‘greenwash’ aimed at foreign audiences and at buying public support, and generally refuse to cooperate with firms over these issues (Mutti et al., 2012; Reboratti, 2012; Svampa and Sola Alvarez, 2010).

  1. Business in Society

The third element, a widespread and enduring suspicion about the role of business in society, connects with the previous two points and sustains an antagonistic pattern of relations that negatively affects the legitimacy of private regulatory regimes in general. This negative positioning of business links with an established ideological narrative where both domestic business elites and foreign corporations are considered partly responsible for the failed industrialization of the country. This narrative strengthened during the opening and ‘modernization’ phase of the economy, given the negative consequences the process had for Argentine business culture, as it involved the disappearance of recognized state-owned industries and national industrial champions – many of which were acquired by foreign firms – and the ensuing weakening of the national industrial class (Gaggero, 2012; Schvarzer, 1996).17 By late 1990s, Jorge Schvarzer (1998, p. 154), a recognized scholar of Argentine industry, observed that ‘in the social imaginary, local industry became a scapegoat for Argentine problems’, associated with low quality products, lacking national identity, and only capable of thriving under rentier practices.18

Again, this narrative was amplified by the statist anti-neoliberal discourse emanating from the government since the early 2000s: the Kirchner administrations resorted to an explicitly anti-corporate discourse that framed the Argentine business class – and in particular traditional groups such as the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) and the Argentine Rural Society (grouping large rural producers and land-owning elites) – of being complicit with foreign interests and opposed to national developmental policies. In particular, the government articulated a frame that connected business interests, the oppressive policies of the authoritarian period, and the disastrous results of neoliberal economics in the country.19 This rhetoric was further stepped up after the rural conflict of 2008, triggered by a governmental attempt to raise taxes on key agricultural exports, mainly soy (Levitsky and Murillo, 2008; Richardson, 2009). Contributing to the polarization of society into pro- and anti-government camps, these protests exposed certain sectors of business such as firms in wage-good areas and agribusinesses, to a new round of public criticism and scrutiny by the government, trade unions, and aligned sectors of civil society (Etchemendy and Garay, 2011).

The effect of this political framing pervades the position of multiple domestic actors in relation to sustainability initiatives. In the view of the Director of an international sustainability NGO operating in the country, with the exclusion of some TNCs and their subsidiaries, Argentine firms have little incentive to innovate in relation to socially-oriented programs, as they consider that the risk of greater public exposure is ‘just not worth it’ (Avina, 2011, pers. comm., 5 September). Similarly, civil society organizations also reported prejudices against working on corporate-oriented projects, as partnerships with business are not considered ‘serious work’, and are treated with suspicion by the broader civil society community and state officials (CEDHA, 2011, pers. comm., 14 September; IARSE, 2011, pers. comm., 13 September; Avina, 2011, pers. comm., 5 September). Not surprisingly, local initiatives seeking to articulate business and civil society collaboration have historically had limited impact and life, as it happened with the Social Sector Forum, created in 1996, and the ‘Argentine Platform of Civil Society Organizations for CSR’, launched in 2004 to coordinate a civil society-wide position on sustainability matters, but dissolved in 2007.

Interestingly, and pointing to the open and dynamic nature of framing processes, in recent years some local business actors have resorted to sustainability frames and initiatives as an defensive strategy against anti-corporate discourses and corporatist practices. This is the case, for example, of a semi-formal network of Buenos Aires city businessmen called ‘Nuevos Aires’, set up in 2009 to promote corporate citizenship in Argentine business culture. Its founder, Alan Gegenschatz, relies on ideas of sustainability and human development to criticize the ‘petty mentality’ of the Argentine business class and the prevalence of clouded corporatist and clientelist relations in Argentine industrial culture (NuevosAires, 2013). A defensive use is also found in the involvement of the agribusiness group Los Grobo – heavily targeted during the rural protests – in the RTRS, a global initiative launched in 2005 (RTRS, 2013). A Los Grobo executive involved in the RTRS Board indicated that, in addition to new market requirements, their participation very much considered the importance of enhancing their legitimacy given the negative public exposure their firm and industry had experienced since 2008 (Los Grobo, 2011, pers. comm., 13 September). Los Grobo joined the RTRS in 2009, obtained its first certificate in 2011, and until recently chaired the RTRS presidency.

Nonetheless, the effects of low resonance are still present around an initiative such as the RTRS, which could be considered successful in terms of mobilizing corporate actors (as the main soy producers in the country are involved). Similarly to CSR activities by mining firms, the RTRS has been denounced by Argentine civil society groups as a green-wash, largely ignored by the government, and timidly supported by the authorities of soy-producing provinces (García-López and Arizpe, 2010; Muñoz and Hilbert, 2012). Moreover, the few NGOs involved with this initiative appear to follow organizational directives, not domestic agendas: the only two participating NGOs are direct dependants of international organizations with stakes in the initiative – the Fundación Humedales is the national office of Wetlands International, and Fundación Vida Silvestre (FVS) is the Argentine representative of the WWF. The WWF is one of the initiators of the RTRS, and one of the main funders of FVS, while Wetlands is an NGO supported by the Dutch Ministry of Economy Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation, a leading sponsor of the roundtable model (Schouten et al., 2012).

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