Published in the Ecologist, November 2010. To view the article in its original format, click here.

Argentinean academic and activist Raul Montenegro on why indigenous people hold the keys to survival, why GM technologies only profit big business and how nuclear power ignores the rights of future generations

Kara Moses: You’ve campaigned for years on a wide range of issues. What have been your greatest successes?

Raul Montenegro:
 Working with indigenous communities in the northeast of Argentina, we stopped the destruction of 10,000 ha of sub-tropical rainforest. In Guatemala, we stopped a Canadian nuclear reactor being built by explaining to members of the government the failures and risks. We also stopped a 25 MW nuclear power station in Zimbabwe from being built. More recently, we were jointly successful with the Bouwer community in closing the second largest landfill of municipal waste in Argentina.

KM: Should we be considering nuclear power as an alternative to coal, oil and gas to help tackle climate change?

Raul Montenegro won the Alternative Peace Prize in 2004 for his work with local communties and indigenous people to protect the environment

Raul Montenegro won the Alternative Peace Prize in 2004 for his work with local communties and indigenous people to protect the environment

RM: Nuclear energy is basically a nonsense technology. Any technology needs to be evaluated in terms of long-term sustainability. Nuclear is the most totalitarian kind of energy because you are making decisions for people who have not been consulted – people who are not yet born. The decision making of the last 50 years has produced risk for generations that will live in the same country in the coming centuries. Some countries, such as France, have not just their own nuclear waste but also facilities for other countries to temporarily dispose of their waste. On the nonsense scale of one to ten, this is ten.

KM: Has the environmental movement become obsessed with climate change at the expense of other issues?

RM: Totally! It’s a serious problem – we are focusing on it in a situation which is much more complex than just climate change. We have terrestrial change, aquatic change, biodiversity change, atmospheric change – they are all changing. Climate change is just one aspect of atmospheric change. It’s not an isolated problem; all these things are interlinked. I fully agree that climate change is a serious problem. But we can’t focus just on climate change.

KM: Is climate change a problem we can solve?

RM: The word we need to use is reduce, not solve – the word ‘solve’ is too big. You can’t change a problem like climate change without changes in lifestyles. It’s not just a matter of greenhouse gases, it’s a matter of consumption – of materials, energy, biodiversity. People in western countries use 400,000 kilocalories of energy per person per day compared to people in a rainforest community who use around 3,000.

KM: You’ve campaigned a lot for the rights of indigenous people. Why do they continue to be ignored?

RM: They represent the opposite of growth. For more than 90 per cent of human history, we were successful because we lived in small populations and in close contact with the environment. This may seem naïve or poetic. But this is the only way of survival in the long term. People living in small villages in the forest have the keys for survival, and we have the keys for destruction. This is uncomfortable for experts, for society. People can’t perceive people who don’t read or write as teachers. They don’t think they have a good life, not being citizens of a consumption society. But if you make an index of happiness and survival possibilities they have the highest scores.

KM: You say we are ‘trapped by agriculture’ can you explain why?

RM: If you have long food chains – basic hunting and fishing within a complex ecosystem – biodiversity and genetic diversity is high and you can resist changes in climate, water basins, and pests. You can have resistance with a mix of long and short food chains also. With only short food chains – such as agriculture – we are at extreme risk to catastrophe as our resistance to change is very low.

The shortest and most recent food chain type [industrial agriculture] is a collection of mistakes. After the first mistake, we made more. The new mistake was to create genotypes that are not the product of natural evolution. I’m not talking in terms of philosophy or religion, I’m talking in terms if survival. We are destroying biodiversity, which we need urgently for survival, but also introducing a new kind of biodiversity that is not adapted to anything. GM organisms are not adapted to ecosystems but to the pockets of big companies. They are adapted only to the survival of Monsanto, Bayer and people linked with big industrial agriculture.

KM:
 A lot of people would say agriculture is one of the biggest successes of mankind – that it’s helped us to spread and flourish around the world and build great civilizations – what would you say to them?

RM:
 I would agree with them; it is a big success. New York, London, Buenos Ares, Cordoba – they are the results of this success. But I need to be very cautious about what this means in terms of the future, because I’m talking in the short term. Fine, we can go shopping, we can eat and drink well, because of the ‘success’ of agriculture. But we have a problem – we have children and these children will have more children in the future. All of our current systems have been planned in the past for that particular moment. We are not planning for the future.

KM: Should we be limiting population growth? 

RM: 
It’s very important not to divorce demography and lifestyles. It’s not just a matter of numbers; it’s a matter of consumption. We can’t just reduce the population – we need to work with the relationship between the population and the environment, and consumption per capita.

The problem now is our society has been built on the idea of growth and size. You are successful only if you grow. Growth and size benefits a particular company or government – not a particular need.

KM: What do you see in the future for humanity?

RM: It’s very easy to see. The problem of traps is the same that happens with an extreme parasite – it’s not responsible. It kills its host that provides food. If we are like parasites on our ecosystem, we are over the carrying capacity, the results are very easy to predict – lots of suffering, lots of conflicts. And those countries with the most power will decide, and those with less power will be decided.

Raul Montenegro won the Alternative Peace Prize in 2004 for his work with local communties and indigenous people to protect the environment

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