Juan Carlos Villalonga, cure 55, has been a longtime catalyst of Argentina’s environmental movement. In 1985 he cofounded the Environmental Workshop, a nonprofit advocacy group, in his home city of Rosario. From 1994 to 2010 he served as campaigns director of Greenpeace Argentina, which has become Argentina’s most influential environmental group with some 80,000 contributing members. Thanks in no small part to pressure exerted by Greenpeace, Argentina’s Congress in those years enacted laws to conserve native forest and promote renewable energy. In 2011, purchase Villalonga entered politics, helping to found a political party named The Greens. Two years later, Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, who this month was elected as Argentina’s next president, appointed him head of the city’s Environmental Protection Agency. And last month Villalonga won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, as a member of Cambiemos, Macri’s political coalition. Villalonga spoke in Buenos Aires with EcoAméricas correspondent Daniel Gutman.
Environmental activists don’t often become municipal government officials and national legislators. How has that journey been, and what are your objectives?
I always worked with the idea of public policy as the place where the debate had to be settled. Today the establishment, in its broadest sense, accepts the green discussion. I’m not only referring to the corporate sector, government officials and political parties. Think, for example, about the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si. There is a great deal of evidence that the environmental agenda has been taken up by the establishment, [whereas] 10 years ago it was an enormous challenge to discuss these issues. This is a new era that justifies my transition.
What has been the reaction of your companions of so many years in environmental activism?
There has been a bit of everything. When I became president of the [Buenos Aires] Environmental Protection Agency, I had a meeting with representatives of a group of organizations [and] I asked that they not reduce by a single millimeter their level of criticism or monitoring on issues. But it’s clear to me that I’m not here as a disguised representative of a non-governmental group. As a social activist, my position was clear and by way of it I challenged the state. Today, as a government official, my mission is to respond to what is requested. Whether I can do it or not depends on my ability to convince members of the government. Of course, one can’t give all the answers one would want because in government there are many constraints in play, the budget being one and time another. Consensus must be built.
Are you pleased that you are called the first green deputy in the Argentine Congress?
What’s important will be what I do, what I represent and what I achieve. That will define if I’ve developed a body of work that can be called green. In a government role, whether in the executive or legislative branch, one must produce results. I can’t pretend to translate the role one had in civil society to government, as if the government were a mere echo chamber. As a deputy I will have to be involved in the letter of the laws that are approved and attempt, by way of negotiation with other blocks, [to achieve] good results.
What will your agenda be in Congress?
The principal objective I propose is not to work on new bills, but rather to reactivate some that have languished for years; for example, bills on electrical and electronic waste, discarded containers, waste phytosanitary containers and protection of wetlands. It is essential to reinforce the work that was done in recent years on these bills, many of which I worked on while in civil society.
Why were environmental questions absent in Argentina’s recent presidential campaign?
Because of the press. Note that Mauricio Macri [who takes office as president of Argentina on Dec. 10] tried to speak about renewable energy in a TV program and the interviewer interrupted him to move on to another subject. Journalists are less interested than society at large, and for this reason there are no questions on environmental issues. It’s easy to say that the candidates don’t speak about the environment, but they don’t do it because they aren’t asked about it. [Presidential candidates] Daniel Scioli as well as Sergio Massa and Macri had environmental capability on their teams, but only the specialized media asked them for information [on environmental positions].
The issue of agriculture and the use of agrochemicals near population centers has caused a great deal of social conflict in Argentina in recent years. How can this be resolved?
First, we should recognize that people have genuine concerns and that they deserve an answer. Then a law needs to be designed that establishes for populations nationally minimum standards [for protection] from agrochemical applications, one that must address the problem in its early stages: manufacturing or importation, distribution, transport, application and phytosanitary containers. None of this has a regulatory framework today in Argentina.
Article 124 of the national constitution, which puts natural resources under the control of the provinces, has appeared in recent years to be an obstacle to national environmental policies. How do you see this situation?
It shouldn’t be an obstacle, but many governors cite this article in order to do whatever they want in their provinces. The constitution, wisely, also establishes that a national environmental policy can be implemented by way of minimum protection standards that provinces must respect. The problem is that the provinces traditionally rebel against these sorts of laws. For some, the laws of minimum environmental protection standards are an instrument imposed by Buenos Aires. Until we overcome the rivalry between the provinces and the [national] capital it will be difficult to have these environmental policies. The great challenge is to build a better relationship because if we don’t, we’re going to have a fragmented country in environmental terms, one in which some provinces will have a conservationist orientation while others don’t.