Working in the Matanza-Riachuelo


Refuse pile alongside a river bank in the Matanza-Riachuelo.

While studying abroad in Argentina, I had the opportunity to work as an intern with a government environmental agency, the Matanza Riachuelo River Basin Authority (ACUMAR by its Spanish acronym). The organization’s mission is to clean up pollution in the Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin and relocating people living in severely contaminated areas to new homes away from the pollution, as well as installing sewage systems in areas where they didn’t exist before. Although relatively unknown outside of Argentina, the Matanza-Riachuelo is one of the most polluted rivers on the planet, with three out of every ten people in the area living with dangerous levels of lead in their blood and more than 1,500 different industries dumping 82,000 cubic meters of industrial waste into the river daily. The Matanza-Riachuelo has historically been an important area for Argentine industry, with at least a fifth of the nation’s GDP still being generated there. Among the industries that have contributed to polluting the river basin over the years are the meat, tannery, and dairy industries which dump blood, organs, and skin into the river giving it a darker color (and being the origin of the name “Matanza-Riachuelo” which translates to “slaughter-brook”).

 

ACUMAR employees taking samples from the river to test for quality.

My tasks with ACUMAR included translating documents from Spanish to English so that ACUMAR could better coordinate with international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and collecting census information of Matanza-Riachuelo residencies with their Department of Territorial Planning. While the translation work wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve ever done (all of the documents I was assigned were legal documents), I did translate ACUMAR’s 40-page Protocol, or the legal document that officially establishes ACUMAR as an organization and lays out in very specific terms what are its responsibilities and how its allowed to carry said responsibilities out. I was told by my supervisor that, with this document in English, it would be much easier to coordinate with international NGOs as they would then know exactly what the capabilities of ACUMAR are within the confines of the Argentine legal system. Additionally, I learned A LOT of Spanish legal jargon, which will be useful should I decide to pursue a career in international law.

 

 

Demolition of a residency within a villa.

But by far the most interesting thing I did in my internship was going to the villas in the Matanza-Riachuelo area in order to collect information about people’s residencies, their familial makeup, and their livelihoods. Doing this is important because, as part of ACUMAR’s mandate, they have the authority to relocate people living in severely polluted areas to new homes built by the government. While on the surface, this may seem like a red flag for potential human rights’ violations (especially when considering Argentine history), the whole process is actually heavily regulated and is part of why taking censuses of the villas is so important. As stated in ACUMAR’s Protocol, all new housing must be at least the same square footage as a family’s old residence as well as having the same access to facilities and services. In almost all cases, the residencies built by ACUMAR are better as most homes in villas along the Matanza-Riachuelo do not have any sort of sewer system nor access to reliable public transportation. The biggest challenge in collecting censuses in these villas stems from the fact that every home is built from scratch by the people living there, from whatever sort of material they can use. I saw everything from corrugated metal rooftops, to using bags of cement as walls, and even a broken down bus used as an entryway. Because each home was quite literally built from the ground up, each one had a completely unique layout which required us to measure practically every square inch ourselves in order to make sure the data we collected was as accurate as possible.

Exterior of new apartment block built by ACUMAR for former villa residents.

Throughout the semester, I surveyed several dozen homes, a mere fraction of the more than 20,000 designated as being in need of immediate relocation. My experience with ACUMAR has given me a much better understanding of how cleaning up areas stricken by environmental catastrophe actually works, as well as how difficult it is to make sure that something as complex as relocating entire neighborhoods is done so in a way that preserves human dignity. Overall, I’m very grateful to have had this experience and would absolutely choose to pursue an internship abroad again if given the choice.

 

Parker Morrison