Faculty member gets key perspectives on trip to Argentina, Uruguay

A College of Communications faculty member took his interest in international environmental communications to the Southern Hemisphere this past summer, spending two weeks conducting interviews and gathering images of archived newspapers in Argentina and Uruguay as he studied a dispute that has produced national reaction in both countries.

Lee Ahern, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations, found the experience interesting and productive.

"Spending time down there provided access and perspectives that could not be gained from afar," Ahern said. "It was an invaluable trip that produced important interviews and examples of media for my research."

Although it was virtually unreported in the U.S. and international press, a major environmental dispute has been straining relations between Argentina and Uruguay for the past five years.

Following changes in forestry regulations in Uruguay in the 1990s, major international corporations from Spain and Finland announced plans to develop some of the world’s largest (and most modern) pulp mills on the banks of the Uruguay River in Fray Bentos, state of Rio Negro, Uruguay. Although the Spanish firm ENCE eventually gave up plans for a plant in the area, by 2006 the Finish company Botnia received government approval, and World Bank financial support, for a massive mill.

Environmental groups from Uruguay were not able to ignite significant opposition to the plant, which most Uruguayans view as evidence of economic development, but the reaction across the Libertador General San Martin Bridge in Gualeguaychú, Argentina, was decisive and severe.

Beginning in 2004, the Asamblea Ciudadana Ambiental de Gualeguaychú (Gualeguaychú Citizens Environmental Assembly) released proclamations that the mill would violate international environmental standards and demanded that plans for the mill be abandoned. The "asambleistas" organized a massive and committed protest movement that strained relations between the two countries and escalated the dispute all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The most aggressive and effective form of protest became the blockade of the bridge ("el corte del puente"). After intermittent blockades in 2004 and 2005 (generally aimed at periods, such as holidays, that would cause the most problems for travelers), the asamblea voted to make the blockade permanent in October 2006, and the bridge remained cut off for over three and a half years.

Argentina has a rich history of citizen protest, and because of past abuses the government is reluctant to repress them. Indeed, for political reasons, local politicians in Entre Rios province and national politicians in Buenos Aires openly supported the demonstrations. During this early period, the blockades and related protests garnered the asamblea near-constant local and national media coverage.

"From a communications perspective, the strategy was an incredible success," Ahern said. "However, framing the issue in nationalistic, us-versus-them terms worked to polarize opinion across the Rio de la Plata and move the focus from the environment to politics."

Ahern is exploring the objectives of strategic communicators involved in the dispute, the resulting national media coverage in both countries, and the implications for public opinion and understanding of the environmental issue. As a case study in communications, the Botnia pulp mill controversy illustrates the dangers of framing environmental issues in nationalistic terms.

With the assistance of Hector Villaverde (Universidad Católica del Uruguay), Ahern interviewed two former Uruguayan Ministers of the Environment, Uruguayan environmental activists, the public relations officer for Botnia curing the crisis, and Rio Negro Governor Omar Lafluf. He also collected systematic and purposeful samples covering the past five years from the leading national newspapers in Uruguay (El Pais) and Argentina (Clarín).

One of the primary ways the print media set the agenda in these Latin American capitals was through their display on ubiquitous street-corner kiosks. Therefore, the content of the front page is of great importance.

Because electronic archives do not provide the context of the page number, headline size, photo or surrounding content, Ahern collected images of the actual publications, a dataset available only through archive research in the region. These images were gathered at the Biblioteca Nacional de la Republica Argentina in Buenos Aires and through the electronic image and print archives at the offices of El Pais, Plaza Cagancha, Montevideo.

Ahern and Villaverde will be transcribing, translating and coding this data for qualitative and quantitative analysis in the months ahead, and expect the research to yield key insights into the roles played local strategic communicators, the national media and international politics in the social construction of environmental issues.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010