NetworkNature Reads: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown

Adriana Duarte, Mount Pilatus
27 June 2024

What is NetworkNature Reads?

#NetworkNatureReads is inspired by #ReadingRainbow and the #NewYorkTimes #ByTheBook series, both of which spread a love of reading by highlighting standout books and the people who love them. Our goal is to do the same, but with a #naturebasedsolutions flavor. Every month, we will feature one book selected by a NetworkNature member.  We believe that literature widens perspectives and can foster connection between human and environmental communities. Read Wild Geese by Mary Oliver if you aren’t sure what we mean.

This month’s interviewee is Adriana Duarte. Adriana grew up in West Virginia and has now made Germany home. She has a background in Sociology and Environmental Governance. Art, music and culture have been a big part of her life, lending an influence to her work communicating for European sustainability initiatives. In her free time, you can find Adriana in the forest trail running and trying her hardest not to trip over rocks. 

Want to feature a book on NetworkNature Reads? Contact to find out how!

Book: Flammable-Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown

Tell us about yourself! What role do nature and reading play in your life?

From an early age I have been known to get lost in bookstores. One of my favorite bookstores when I was young was Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, Colorado, where I frequented the Sociology section. 

It has struck me from early on that we live in an unequal society and that greater factors could drastically affect our joint lived experiences. As an extension, these factors affect our access to nature, green spaces and healthy environments.

Which book did you pick and why?

I have selected the book Flammable-Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown, by Javier Auyero and Débora Alejandra Swistun. This ethnography chronicles the daily struggles of residents of an Argentine shantytown located next to a large refinery. The area residents inhabit is technically deemed as “unsuitable for human life” by safety standards. Those who have lived there longer yearn for earlier times when they say the waters were cleaner, nearby farms grew fruits which smelled sweet and one could sleep with their door open. I related to the book because I grew up in a region in Appalachia that was also no stranger to chemical pollution. 

Most notably in 2014 we suffered a massive accident where uninspected tanks resulted in a spill of 10,000 gallons of Crude Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) into the local Elk River, a crucial body of water for drinking in the region. This unfortunate event made it clear to me that chemical pollution is a very real risk that must be monitored, mitigated and communicated openly and regularly with communities. 

Can you share a specific moment from the book that resonates with you personally? 

The aspect of the book Flammable that struck me the most is more of a theme rather than a moment. Due to the community’s low socioeconomic status and lack of options to improve their lived environment, there came about a social phenomenon the authors termed as “Collective disbelief in joint action”, meaning that the residents of the shantytown remained collectively inactive against their suffering. 

A factor that contributed to their acceptance of environmental harm was the degree to which the communication between the nearby refinery, local authorities and the residents of the nearby community Flammable resulted in more confusion than clarity. Many of the residents living in the shantytown became convinced that it was not dangerous to live next to the refinery, despite that people were showing consistent signs of lead poisoning when formally tested and experiencing the corresponding symptoms of lead contamination. Co-author Debora Alejandra Swistun grew up in Flammable and was highly motivated to write this book, first and foremost to give back to her community and raise awareness for eco-toxicity and mobilise change for residents both in Flammable and other communities. Her work shows the importance effective communication can have for social change. 

How does what you learned in this book connect to your work with Nature-based Solutions projects?

When I think about the tragedy that happened over the years in Flammable, I see how important it is to work on improving complex environmental problems with approaches that include residents affected from the very start. 

I especially think it’s important to remember that we live in a global world, where some suffer the negative effects of climate change and pollution far more than others. It can feel overwhelming to absorb the extent of environmental inequality in the world, but equally important is to remember that there are many people, such as those working in the field of Nature-based Solutions, that have answers to address these challenges in communities around the world. 

Spanning outwards, when I reflect on Nature-based solutions as a framework, I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon it. I think that NbS’s focus on community participation is powerful and important. In the 76 and counting EU projects dealing with nature-based solutions, communicating directly with local communities is always a strong component of the work. Such an approach for outreach and education raises more awareness for environmental issues and improves societal and environmental outcomes for residents. 

Consistent environmental communication and educational activities are crucial for these aims and equally important is to remain in network with other regions on developing solutions to complex environmental problems. 

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