The Río de la Plata basin (also known as the Plate River Basin) is an area stretching from the estuary southeast of Buenos Aires to the transborder regions of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil. It is subject to severe environmental pressures, including deforestation and the draining of wetlands to create space for monocultures of grain and soybeans, extensive damming along the Paraná river, and the unregulated extraction of silica sand to be used for unconventional fossil fuel extraction such as fracking.
This has damaging effects on biodiversity and on the livelihoods and wellbeing of resident communities, especially those living in the islands of the wetlands. Local campaign groups and artists in the area have been responding to and protesting these issues of environmental justice for many years but have struggled to reach decision makers with the power to change policy.
Territorios de Colaboración, Pedagogías de lo Anegado (Collaborative Territories, Learning from the Flooded) is a large scale initiative created by Casa Río to respond to this situation, working with local artists and communities as well as well as the Wetlands Without Borders network. The project aims to use artistic practices to develop connections between community representatives (including young people, women’s groups, and grassroots organisations), political actors, and scientists, creating regional alliances that account for a wide variety of perspectives.
The project connects the needs and knowledge of inhabitants with scientific evidence and expertise on pushing for political reform, aiming to promote decision making that has a deep connection with local communities and geographies rather than being imposed externally without understanding of the specific needs of this territory. These connections are fostered through the medium of artistic practice, with artists finding innovative ways of building understanding between stakeholders and communicating the knowledge they produce together. The project also aims to encourage and promote social self-organisation and reveal the specific potential of art for contributing to this process.
The project works by sending collaborative groupings, formed from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, out on ‘campaigns’ into the Paraná River delta to carry out workshops and exercises in imagination and collective production to help develop new strategies to preserve the bio-cultural heritage of the wetlands. Specific methods are not predetermined. In some cases, professional artists draw inspiration from local guides and communities to create incisive critical works. In other cases, the entire group – artists and non-artists – improvises their aesthetic approach, creating amateur or hybrid pieces that seem to spring directly from the inhabited territory. The range of approaches is generative, allowing people to collectively develop the approaches that suit their unique context rather than imposing a single normative model.
The results of these collaborations include photography, field recordings, interviews, drawing, sound art, painting, cartography and other perceptual and communicational tools. These are presented through exhibition formats that seek to stimulate further collaboration between artists and grassroots communities. Activists and local inhabitants who come together in the exhibition space don’t necessarily focus on the quality or novelty of the art, rather the works aim to help stimulate a reframing of their approaches to the territory.
A map of the area in which Casa Río operates. Credit: Casa Río.
This method was initially tested in local experiments, resulting in a series of small exhibitions and discussion sessions held at Casa Río itself in 2018. It was then brought to a larger scale during the following year. Five collaborative partnerships were organized on the basis of existing friendships or working relationships. Artists, activist researchers and local inhabitants went out into the estuary and island territories of the Río de la Plata basin to gather impressions and documents, and above all, to talk with whomever they might meet. These partnerships focused on five critical areas:
- Wetlands, real estate development and public land policies
- Wetlands, agro-economy, technology and logistics
- Wetlands and pollution
- Wetlands and infrastructure
- Wetlands and sustainable initiatives
Participants used an interactive map to record the fruits of their collaborations alongside spontaneous inputs from local inhabitants. Their new artworks, translating their perceptions into visual and acoustic forms, were added to documents and works from previous engagements with the Paraná Delta reaching back over two decades, creating a diversity of creative responses that reflected and amplified the biodiversity of the environment. Further works dealing with parallel situations in the Mississippi River Watershed were added by a group of artists from Chicago, USA (home of Casa Río member Brian Holmes).
This ‘interbasin collaboration’ gave rise to The Earth Will Not Abide / La Tierra No Resisterá, an international exhibition held in Rosario, Argentina, in February-April 2019, carried out with the co-curatorship of artist Graciela Carnevale from Rosario. The exhibition space was also used for a two-day colloquium involving 40 different organizations.
The colloquium included representatives of NGOs, environmentalists, local political figures, journalists, artists, and inhabitants of the islands. Among the participants were 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. Casa Río and Collaborative Territories explicitly support the creation of a Wetland Law of this kind, and oriented the exhibition and colloquium towards encouraging support for the law and building grassroots pressure on political actors who could help bring it about.
Casa Río sees this model of collaboration as one that could be adopted in other parts of the world marked by similar clashes between large-scale land use policy and local communities. They have drawn explicit parallels with the Mississippi River Watershed, and the online map Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos highlights this connection by allowing users to compare the Mississippi and La Plata watersheds. Future collaborations with ecologically oriented groups in other great river basins of the world are one likely future outcome of this experimentation.