Q & A
Norwegian Prize for Argentine Activist
By Marcela Valente
Romina Picolotti, who recently won an international award for promoting the link between environment and human rights, sat down with Tierramérica for a Question-Answer session.
BUENOS AIRES, (Tierramérica).- The Argentine activist and lawyer Romina Picolotti won the 2006 Sophie Prize for demonstrating "that human rights... are intimately linked to the environment."
Since 1997 the Oslo-based Sophie Foundation has annually awarded this 100,000-dollar prize, established in honor of the book "Sophie's World", by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder.
In 2004, the prize went to Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, who just months later won the Nobel Peace prize.
A lawyer with a master's degree in international law from the Washington DC-based American University, Picolotti, 35, headed the Latin American division of the International Human Rights Law Group in the 1990s. It was there that she began to realize that human rights are also violated when big corporations, with the support of the government, encroach on a country's natural resources.
Picolotti created the Center for Human Rights and Environment, CEDHA, in the central Argentine province of Córdoba. Through it she was able to convince the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) to force the Peruvian government to attend to the residents of La Oroya, a city 150 km east of Lima, harmed by the operations of a nearby mine.
In 2005 she was elected to represent the inhabitants of the eastern Argentine city of Gualeguaychú, who oppose the construction of two pulp mills on the Uruguayan side of the river of the same name, which serves as a border between the two countries. The opponents argue that the plants will harm the environment and the health of the local residents. The dispute between the Uruguayan and Argentine governments has dragged on for months. Picolotti met with Tierramérica for a Q&A in Buenos Aires.
Q: What do you think about winning the Sophie Prize?
A: I think the Foundation was very brave in giving it to me. The prize is awarded to an individual or organization for their work in sustainable development. The mission of CEDHA, which connects human rights and the environment, was seen by [the Foundation] as revolutionary.
Q: How are human rights violated when natural resources are exploited?
A: To begin, we see a violation of the right to information. For example, in Chile we are working on a case about access to information on transgenics. But then there are companies that, with their projects, encroach on resources and affect the health of the population, their quality of life, their right to a healthy environment. We try to find solutions that don't mean shutting down the companies, because we know that means losing sources of work, but we believe the government should retake its role of control and companies have to change their modes of production.
Q: How did CEDHA get involved in the case of the pulp mills on the Uruguay River?
A: We were called by the government of (the eastern Argentine province of) Entre Ríos for our technical experience. But if the victims don't support it, the case will dissolve. So we met with the residents of Gualeguaychú (the town most affected) and nearly 40,000 people voted for CEDHA to represent them. It's the first time that the interests of the residents and the government coincide. With this backing we turned to the IACHR to halt the construction. In Uruguay, the argument is that the government has sovereign rights over the area.
Q: The reaction of the residents who oppose the mills... is it a new phenomenon or is it part of a trend in Argentina?
A: It is a trend throughout Latin America. The lack of planning by the governments allows the corporations to set the rules of the game and decide when and where to invest, without taking into account the impacts. At the same time, the population is increasingly informed and has a new kind of awareness. The people inform themselves and are reacting before it's too late.
Q: Do you think Norway is sending a message of support by awarding you this prize in the midst of the pulp mill controversy?
A: I don't know exactly when they made the decision, but at the time the prize was announced, the president of the Foundation, Gunhild Oerstavik, strongly exhorted the Norwegian bank Nordeia to abstain from financing these projects in Uruguay. And since then, many lawmakers from the European Parliament have been contacting us to learn more about the case.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.