View all of Issue 4: "Governance Reimagined"

A River Basin as Governance Lab

A map showing the area encompassed by the Río de la Plata drainage basin.

A map showing the area encompassed by the Río de la Plata drainage basin. Image courtesy of Alejandro Meitin.

Editor’s Note

Like concentric circles reverberating from a stone dropped in water, sitting within the estuary of the La Plata River places one within the overlapping spheres that make up the Río de la Plata, a vast South American water drainage basin spanning numerous countries and populations, second in size only to the Amazon basin. For three decades, artist and lawyer Alejandro Meitin has worked within this immense natural network and over four years ago established Casa Río, a bioregional center of exchange, training, and learning built on the premise that revolutionary actions must be wedded to the environmental context in which they exist. Meitin spoke with Raquel de Anda about the implications self-governance and decolonization have within the grassroots ecological-political organization, and what changes an approach rooted in artistic practices could effect upon the colossal landscape and the people and environments which inhabit it.

Raquel de Anda: Can you provide some background about your practice? How long have you been working in the estuary of La Plata River and can you talk about the political history of the area?

Alejandro Meitin: My work begins in the area of the southern coastal strip of the estuary of La Plata River, where I was born. The estuary is the final section of La Plata River Basin, the second largest basin in South America, and covers an area of approximately 3,200,000 square kilometers. To get an idea of its size, it is approximately one third of the total area of the United States and it is almost equal to the total area of all the countries that make up the European Union. From its watershed, the basin area includes part of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, all of which feed into a very large tributary network and provide water to the whole region.

It’s economically very important, just as the Mississippi Basin is for the United States. So this brings together a series of issues that are closely related to the topic of watershed geopolitics. I am particularly interested in investigating the linkages of these large basins with the European and Asian markets. I am also interested in the political dynamics that occur in Latin American territories which are directly influenced by global economies and extractive industries.

I live approximately 60 kilometers from the City of Buenos Aires in a very small town called Punta Lara where we can somewhat see the advances of this great mega-city and analyze and speculate from the space that is Casa Río, not only the question of the geopolitics of basins, but also the advances of urban areas or marginal areas and the dynamics which are established by urban growth.

Raquel: What is Casa Río Power to do Lab and how did it develop from Ala Plástica, the organization that you had co-founded earlier?

Alejandro: Over the last 30 years, I developed a practice through an institutional approach with Ala Plástica and, in the last 4–5 years, with the creation of Casa Río Power to do Lab, which is the new structure I have been working on to build another type of strategy in the territory. Operating since 1991, Ala Plástica functioned as an artistic-environmental organization with characteristics of a non-governmental nature. In 2014, one of the last projects of Ala Plástica called for the basins to be a governance laboratory, which we developed together with Brian Holmes, Sarah Lewison, Critical Art Ensemble, and Argentine, American, Barcelonian, and Ecuadorian artists. It was like a farewell piece for Ala Plástica, but in turn, gave way to the experience of Casa Río in 2016, where we continued with the artists who had participated in the experience of the basins as governance laboratories.

I dedicated myself to building another type of organization that had in its interior the things that Ala Plástica did not have. Casa Río is a laboratory located in Punta Lara, a place for research on practices—as the name says, a “to do lab”—and has an influence on the entire area of La Plata Basin, where our work has been focused for many years. At this time Casa Río is made up of a group of lawyers, architects, biologists, and young computer scientists. It is specifically focused on working on micro but also macro-political issues in the form of a research study.

Raquel: I would love to know a little about how you work in Casa Río as a multidisciplinary group with strong relationships with the environment, with the lands, but also with different countries. How do you make decisions and who is included? How do you work on a hyper-local level and then on large scales? How does that way of growth work?

"Wetland Law Now!" A letterpress workshop organized as part of a campaign along the Paraná River delta for the project "Collaborative Territories/Flooded Pedagogies."

Wetland Law Now! A letterpress workshop organized as part of a campaign along the Paraná River delta for the project Collaborative Territories/Flooded Pedagogies. Photo courtesy of Alejandro Meitin.

Alejandro: We have launched directly into a vast territory of a large-scale initiative called Humedales Sin Fronteras (Wetlands Without Borders). It is somewhat the consolidation of a project that we have been working on in the basins as a governance laboratory with local artists and communities, with regional nodes and organizations in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. We are working on global or bioregional axes on several issues all of which are focused on the La Plata Basin area, such as specific defense interests on the construction of large mega-dams over the Paraná river, the creation of biocultural corridors, or the delta’s daily sustainable development.

We work with more than 18 organizations at the territorial level. By inviting political actors, community actors, and scientists into this bioregional initiative, we are incorporating the perspective of artistic practice and social transformation onto large-scale dimensions with a geopolitical analysis. The idea is that the distinctiveness of these types of networks of organizations—that can function in many parts of the world—can work in the form of regional alliances that have real impact on decision-making processes.

We have been working in this way since the days of Ala Plástica, and recognize in the territory that this practice of artistic impact is very important for everything that is related to processes of connecting to the territory, of creation, of agreements, and of strategic dialoguing with communities—even with political and scientific actors.

We work with young people, women’s groups, grassroots organizations, and representatives of the scientific field, as importantly as with those in the political sphere, to create a new approach to these areas in the decision-making process. That is why the vision of governance that we speak of is not the vision of governance of, say, The World Bank, but rather the construction of a political muscle that is developed from a territorial perspective and what we define as the vocation of place. To not repeat a discourse created in the United States or in Europe, or even continue an artistic practice clearly influenced by the United States-Europe axis, but instead to create our own adventure, our own utopia, our own form of creation related to this territory, with this community.

The vision of governance that we speak of is not the vision of governance of, say, The World Bank, but rather the construction of a political muscle

That does not mean that it is independent of what is happening on the global scale. It simply means that we need to decolonize our thinking and work on the foundations of what our territory has to say.

Raquel: I love that way of articulating it. I would like to know a little more about your way of understanding the importance of working as an artist. How has this idea of the artist manifested in your practice? Likewise, how is it different from perhaps how the State would work in a place or on one of the ideas or issues that you focus on?

Alejandro: The State, including academic entities or the entire constituted institution, works top down. It is a super-structure that descends on a territory, and that super-structure tries to achieve a certain premeditated objective. In our case at Casa Río, like Ala Plástica before it, we emerge from the community space in which we work. We never focus on thinking about our practices as projects, but rather we work with long-term initiatives and exercises that were given as a way to effect meaning throughout that work or that “doing,” let’s say. Since I work in the social field, I do not enjoy arriving in a community already knowing what that community is able to reproduce in order to have the promised outcome for the commissioning agent.

Collaborative Territories

Who designs the territories? And for who are they designed? A performance in Campaign 4 of Collaborative Territories/Flooded Pedagogies. Photo courtesy of Alejandro Meitin.

We have also developed a subprogram called Territorios de Colaboración, Pedagogías de lo Anegado (Collaborative Territories, Flooded Pedagogies) where we connect artists who have a long history of working in social contexts with communities that have a long history in social transformation, and together these groups generated five campaigns along 400 kilometers in wetland territories of the great Paraná River delta. The emerging works of this transversal assembly were produced and presented as part of the international exhibition The Earth Will Not Abide in April 2019, in the city of Rosario, one of the largest grain exporting ports in the world. We also held a three-day convening of 40 people, including representatives of NGOs, environmentalists, local political figures, journalists, artists, and inhabitants of the islands. We included people expelled from their lands for fighting for the approval of a “Wetland Law” which would have provided a conservation framework for riverine environments in Argentina, including its human and non-human inhabitants. A key part of this work was the creation of an interactive map, made with open source mapping technology.

This type of cross-sector collaboration brings to mind an individual project I developed last year in the city of Bucaramanga, Colombia at the invitation of the collective Espacios Revelados/Changing Places. In the city, there were protests of 70,000-80,000 people in defense of the city’s water supply. The entire region drinks water from the Santurban Páramo, a very pristine Andean tundra that was being threatened by a large international gold mining company. Grounded in the idea of post-extractivism, I organized a local team of artists and organizers and proposed to create a cryptocurrency whose value asset is represented by the unextracted minerals encapsulated in the mountain itself. Despite the political pressure they experienced, the local young people I was working with found such inspiration in the idea; they considered this their life’s project. So we continued working long-distance, and less than a month ago we officially formed CORPBAM [The Bank is the Mountain Corporation], of which I am the vice president, and the cryptocurrency WAcoin. To create local accountability, an important part of the cryptocurrency will remain in the hands of the miners and farmers of the tundra who are creating great pressure, so that extractive mining does not destroy the ecoregion and contaminate Bucaramanga’s water. The currency will increase its value to the extent that the Páramo is not altered and will be used to support conservation and preservation projects of said ecosystem.

This connects back to the issue of geopolitics in the territories in La Plata Basin and the major issue of mining in Latin America today. There has been more active resistance from the affected communities and environmental groups who are participating in the struggle to defend the ecosystems, nature, and the viability of communities.

Raquel: This work is absolutely necessary in a time when there are powers so great which are already entrenched in our countries—in the whole world—and at the same time, where there are very strong pockets of resistance that have been working for generations.

I’d like to address the idea of transformative change. What is always necessary for me is to find a  balance between a vision of utopia, or a direction of where we want to go, and at the same time, understand what needs to be done right now with what is in front of us. Can you share some ideas about how you handle these ideas of utopia—of big systemic transformation—while managing the often difficult and complex tasks of daily life?

Alejandro: You just have to throw yourself into the search for these utopias, trusting in its emergence, trusting in what will happen. I don’t believe that a result can be predetermined. The challenge is to advance the things that one believes and trust in the emergence of it, while constantly strengthening more and more one’s values and distancing oneself from one’s “anti-values.” But hey, these are searches that everyone has to do in their own lives. The only thing I can say is: do good without looking unto whom, and trust the emergence.

Raquel de Anda is a curator, producer, and cultural organizer based in Brooklyn, NY. Born and raised on the U.S.-Mexico border, much of her work approaches themes of duality, connection, separation, inclusion, and the intersection of migrant rights with climate justice.

Alejandro Meitin is an artist, lawyer, social innovator, and founder of the art collective Ala Plástica (1991–2016) based in the city of La Plata, Argentina. More recently, he founded Casa Río Power to do Lab, collaborating with youth, farmers, artists, activists, architects, landscape architects, local authorities, and pollution control experts to create proposals regarding rivers and water resources.


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