Network Member Interview: Catalina Marino, ACIJ

Translating Research into Action Series

March 6, 2024

*Lee la entrevista en español aquí.

In this interview, we had the opportunity to talk to Catalina Marino, Programs Coordinator for the Right to the City at Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), about the participatory action research they have been involved in since 2023 as part of the Learning Agenda for Legal Empowerment. Through this project, ACIJ is working to enhance public participation and community solidarity for urban redevelopment in Argentina’s Matanza Riachuelo river basin, while contributing to generate key evidence about how to build community participation and leadership, and how to use legal empowerment to advance environmental justice at the intersection with other rights. During our conversation, we touched on what they have learned and how they aim to translate this research into tangible actions to enhance the organization’s work and how it shapes policies, regulations, as well as the communities in informal settlements with whom they work. 

For decades, ACIJ has worked with legal empowerment strategies alongside communities impacted by the contamination of the Matanza Riachuelo Basin in the City and the Province of Buenos Aires, following the landmark Supreme Court ruling (2008) that mandated clean-up and protection efforts for affected communities. During our conversation with Catalina, we explored how the concrete actions stemming from the development of a participatory action research study launched in 2023 have, or will potentially, impact ACIJ’s work within this context. 

Furthermore, acknowledging the shifts in the political landscape following the outcomes of the November 2023 elections in Argentina, we seized the opportunity to discuss the influence of these changes on ACIJ’s research and actions, exploring the decisions they have made to navigate the perceived challenges resulting from these shifts.

Can you summarize the challenges you have faced in implementing the research project given the recent changes in the political context?

Recent political changes have compounded some of the challenges we previously identified. Two significant difficulties stand out.

One, the project started in January 2023 and in August the open primaries were held in Argentina that resulted in Javier Milei emerging as the winner, altering the political scenario and political alignments. Above all, it meant that the period from August to November [2023] was consumed by an electoral campaign, which significantly impacts the neighborhoods, because many stakeholders are either social movements, political party representatives or collectives associated or aligned with a particular candidate. This dynamic directly impacts the nature of discussions and activities in the neighborhood. We anticipated this because it was an election year, but the [right-wing] perspective intensified the impact, leading to confusion because it wasn’t clear which was the most effective strategy to pursue.

Beyond these challenges, the costs associated with criticizing certain policies have shifted, because suddenly you’re falling way behind in the discourse of rights. At the neighborhood level, voicing critiques against officials associated with the left or left-wing Peronism in general in the context of a right-wing government is much harder. It becomes more difficult to press them about how they execute rights.

There is a need to reconsider certain strategies in light of the new political landscape. There’s another aspect common to any transition, which is the turnover of officials, both at the national and local levels. Even in Buenos Aires, where the PRO [Propuesta Repulbicana] remains in power, the shift towards the right within the local government is pronounced.

So, it’s a lot of work to figure out who the new interlocutors and allies are, what the policy is going to be, and so on. At the national level, some of the officials are outsiders, nobody knows them. Plus, the process of appointing new officials has been drawn out, exacerbated by budget cuts. 

We tried to start with mapping out the stakeholders, but it had to be updated every week due to frequent changes in officials. It’s March and we’re still grappling with understanding what our map of stakeholders is. It’s all very uncertain and that makes planning actions incredibly challenging.

And finally, the national government has implemented an aggressive policy of cutting public spending, which has a direct impact on informal settlements or popular neighborhoods. For example, food is no longer being sent to community canteens, subsidies to social organizations have been slashed, etc. Neighborhood organizations are still adjusting to the situation, making it a peculiar context in which to advocate for an agenda.

What changes were made to the project design to accommodate these transformations?

The research component remains the same. In other words, we’re still systematizing last year’s work, even though we haven’t been able to register the new context yet.

What has changed is at the level of action. So, we realized that holding assemblies in this context was impossible. No one was in a place to figure out how to get organized. So, we’ve focused on making sure that the actions we take make logical sense to the stakeholders we work with, and that we look for alternative stakeholders that allow us to work as a network. 

All the organizations are trying to collaborate within a network because we find ourselves on the defensive, it feels like we’re in the trenches. Initially, we championed a progressive rights agenda, and now this is facing setbacks, at least in public discourse. So, at the project level, in Villa 21-24, for example, where there is a more active organization, they’re all defenseless. As a result, we decided to align with organizations which are actively engaged in the neighborhood. The idea is to be able to leverage alliances to create synergies with what these other organizations are doing and gain more traction, because there aren’t very many of us, resources are limited, there are difficult years ahead and we have to know how to pick our battles. So, we’re trying to find ways not to lose momentum, and, most of all, to avoid tiring the neighborhood.

How has what you planned to achieve with the project in early 2023 changed to what you plan to achieve today?

The current targets are more a fight from the trenches. Initially, when the project began, we envisioned actions that could foster increased public investment or greater participation in public investment, or developing strategies so that there would be, for example, an urban development roundtable in Villa 21-24.

This isn’t going to happen; we’re not going to see it this year or next. 

Primarily, I anticipate a lack of funding from the state, which nullifies our material objectives. Instead, our focus now is on advocating for the completion of existing projects, such as the water works in Villa 21-24 and the construction of housing.

In this context, though, we can’t have a position of ‘opposition’ to the government, because we have to be strategic in our public discourse. We can’t simply oppose the government for the sake of opposition. We have to be able to engage in discussions. Because there are people here who think that the budget cuts were necessary after years of populism, while others argue that the adjustments should prioritize those most in need. There is no concrete evidence proving that these adjustments benefit those most in need, since the available data does not support this, but this is what is in the public discourse. In times of fake news it is hard to envision a sophisticated debate at this level. This is to generate a dialogue that allows us to think about public policies in a sophisticated manner. Therefore,  we have to figure out who we want to do this with, how do we avoid just talking amongst ourselves.

What insights on how to conduct participatory action research in changing or uncertain contexts does this experience leave you with?

1) Be open to your plan being shelved. You have to be willing to do that for it to work, or to constantly evaluate (naturally, when you have the capacity to recalculate and when the dialogue within the project is flexible), to be able to monitor whether the things you had originally planned still make sense. Thinking about what makes sense to continue even through registration/learning, and where, in terms of context, interests, etc., you have to come up with another strategy. To achieve this, it is crucial to establish a presence and build connections within the community or territory.

2) Be able to evaluate all the pros and cons of your stance. While it’s important to uphold your principles, it’s equally crucial to understand the political context and the perspectives within the community. For example, if I have been advocating for community participation, we have to keep on doing this. It’s not about lowering my standards or stopping what I’m doing. What we have to learn is to know how to mediate our discourse of participation in the face of the challenges that are imposed by the political climate, because you have to know who you’re working for. I don’t have an objective like ACIJ for ACIJ, they have to be tied to the communities, to the informal settlements or popular neighborhoods I work with. I have to constantly monitor things and look for ways to incorporate the discussion. You can’t defend your stance at all costs because you don’t want to alienate the allies you may have on the ground.

Now, in terms of the action research activities involved in the development of surveys to evaluate the implementation of the Court’s ruling in the basin, what kind of information do you expect to collect and how do you expect to systematize it?

Part of the interventions that we were thinking about was to collect information that speaks about the level of enforcement of the court ruling: from environmental issues such as levels of contamination of air, soil, water, etc., to changes in living conditions and/or advances in the processes in the popular neighborhoods in general within the framework of the ruling. We want to understand the level of effectiveness of this epic strategic environmental litigation in the country, with a low level of implementation.

When it comes to the systematization of this information, the proposed strategy is through a survey in informal settlements or popular neighborhoods. The plan is to engage someone well-versed in survey methodology to design the data collection process and do the fieldwork. However, this will depend on how we manage to link with other actors, and the extension of the effort. We’ll have to wait and see, and if not, we’ll have to use publicly available information. In terms of the population to be interviewed, there is an interest in engaging with relocated families, but also with families that have not been relocated and continue to be impacted by the basin’s contamination.

What results do you expect to find in these surveys?

My expectation is to be able to see if there was indeed an impact with the relocation processes. Ideally, I would tend to think that there was a positive impact on quality of life through access to services, housing and so on, particularly in comparison with families without access to solutions.

I also expect to see the drawbacks, like the financial burden of accessing services. There are trends of relocated families resorting to renting or selling their homes because of the financial strain, so we also need to look at the level of sustainability of this policy. This necessitates an in-depth analysis of the policy’s effectiveness.

In short, I would like to understand how these actions generate concrete changes in the socio-environmental conditions of the families and then what limitations they have. Perhaps the findings may lead us to the conclusion that the solution lies not solely in new housing, but perhaps socio-urban integration within the neighborhood. However, drawing such conclusions may be challenging due to limited examples of evaluation of socio-urban integration at such a scale, but this should help us to be able to refine public policy in terms of socio-urban integration. Anyway, that’s more of an intuition of mine. 

Sorry, and that’s supplemented by the fact that having data on the impacts of public policy makes more sophisticated arguments about how you have to invest possible. So, I hope that it will give us enough information to craft more sophisticated public policy, or more sophisticated judicial approaches that will allow us to improve these kinds of interventions in the long run. 

In this sense, what is broadly the impact you expect to have from this type of effort?

Optimistically, if this materializes with certain alliances, it could be a powerful instrument to effectively analyze the impact of collective litigation on environmental matters at different levels. It would be something new in this regard because it would involve different stakeholders and organizations engaged in a collective litigation and would demonstrate the impact, limitations, successes and so on. 

A part that has to do with the judicial aspect, what the legal constraints of this case were, and a more factual examination of how much of the case allows works to advance, how much of these works impact on the neighborhoods, how much of what was demanded is what should have been demanded to advance environmental justice.

In terms of the implementation of the ruling, I think it’s tough to look at public investment the same way as we have in previous years. I do think that it could provide guidelines on how to invest the few resources that are available, how to develop them, and how to prioritize them. In that sense, it seems to me that a positive move by the Supreme Court could allow the available resources to be directed to this cause.

Regarding the action research activities tied to the use of legal strategies and their intersection with environmental rights in certain neighborhoods in the basin, what kind of information do you expect to collect for this product and how do you hope to systematize it?

What we had in mind was to systematize the impacts, benefits and issues of legal strategies in various contexts through interviews and insights drawn from our own experiences.

The idea is to see what happened in Villa Inflamable both before and after the threat of relocation, or in Villa 21-24 over three periods: the previous one where there was no participation, then a phase marked by increased and more organized community involvement, and a period now where there is no expectation of housing. So, this means thinking in terms of periods in order to understand what works in what context, and how people react with strategies and tools. Based on this, the aim is to develop the roles or challenges of community organization and identify how the conception of the environment as a threat is changing.

And we aim to systematize this through interviews that have already been conducted and our direct participation in these processes. We currently don’t have a formal system for organizing our insights – the reports help us do that.

What kind of analysis do you hope to do and how do you expect to disseminate it?

The intention is to present it in the form of an article, albeit not entirely academic. It will involve a literature review and conceptual grounding, describing why environmental issues in our case are so confused with socio-urban integration. However, it will primarily serve as a reflection on strategies, while also serving as an annex for learning, fostering improvement.

It’s not thought to be disseminated in the neighborhood. It’s more of a document for broader circulation within the framework of the Learning Agenda, more of a civil society document for external observation and reflection. 

In broad terms, what impact do you anticipate?

For me, it prompts us to think about whether what we are doing makes sense and what our plan is looking ahead three or five years from now (ACIJ’s plan and the plan of the Right to the City programme). It forces us to pause and think about whether what we are doing makes sense: in what way should we work with the communities? Do we have to do work on the ground or do we have to partner with others and be an intermediary organization? Should we advocate the legal strategy or not, and if so, how, when and with whom? And also understand when to let go.

In closing, how are you planning to disseminate or how do you think you could disseminate these insights within the organization that can have an impact on other programmes of ACIJ?

This entire project has made me think not only about our specific programme but also about ACIJ. Programmes which emerged originally rooted in community demands, we face this challenge of working in communities, defining roles, implementing strategies. I’ve had several conversations with ACIJ colleagues about where we need to go as an organization in general, beyond individual programmes. So, I think these discussions that motivated this project led me to discuss these elements with others. Like how the organization in general engages the communities, and if we should maybe shift our paradigm since the organization is different than it was 20 years ago.

I am inclined to believe that the only way to scale certain actions is to be an intermediary organization, with the risks of outsourcing contact with communities. To rethink if the role of an organization like ours, involved in action research and with a structure that reaches places of power with influence where decisions are made, that perhaps our efforts should focus on establishing strong connections with these power structures and letting on-the-ground organizations mediate the connections with the neighborhoods. And from there, contemplate strategies to empower these on-the-ground organizations by providing them with methodologies they may lack or facilitating dialogues with other stakeholders they currently don’t have a dialogue with. I think that these are the lessons learned.

April 12, 2024 | Marta Almela