You may have heard of the recent environmentalist protests against Monsanto, possibly on this very site. Conversely, if you follow some environmental activist friends on Facebook, you may have spotted a trend in Monsanto-related share posts recently. No need to subscribe to ‘greenie‘ newsletters or attend events; our Facebook news feeds have already declared Monsanto the new undisputed heavyweight champ of evil corporations, surpassing former title-holders Exxon and Halliburton in the ‘most dangerous to our kids future’ division. And once there, it’s a list that companies rarely leave, often resulting in expensive acquisitions and billion dollar marketing campaigns.

Viewpoints aside, for the environmentalist movement in the U.S., the Monsanto rally is a boon for recruiting. It powerfully mixes skepticism and cynicism about big business and capitalism, in context to the erosion of naturalist beliefs – with other frustrations like spiraling government corruption sprinkled in. No other current environmental story, not even oil extraction, appeals to a broader base of various left-wing activists. So it’s no surprise that the trend eventually made its way to Argentina. It’s story ‘shareability‘ makes it perfect for growing awareness in this Facebook obsessed country. Look for yourself. Facebook membership for anti-Monsanto groups is growing, with more and more Argentines taking an interest in the controversy of GM seed production and chemical cultivation techniques.

This suggests that finally, after decades of failing to move out of society’s fringe and attach themselves to globally trending issues (for reasons beyond their control), environmentalism in Argentina is finally cementing themselves as a mainstream movement. And it’s been a long time coming. To paraphrase Ashton Wesner’s fantastic 2010 paper “Uncovering Argentina Environmentalists”: Environmentalism doesn’t really exist in Argentina, for many reasons like the dictatorship’s crackdowns and the difficulty in navigating the muddy water of Argentine politics. When you look at it closely, the failure for it to become rooted in Argentine society isn’t mysterious at all.

But there’s a change in the air, powered by social media, allowing activists to disseminate information and recruit, connect and intertwine, collaborate and pool human resources — and more importantly, connect with common people previously unaware. And it couldn’t have arrived at a better time, as Argentina’s controversial economic development continues unimpeded by environmental concerns, focusing instead on the economics of capitalism instead of the hidden human cost to developmental policies. There’s the infamous Boston Globe photo gallery, a collection of sad and gruesome photos of the effects of pesticide use in rural Argentina. Open cut mining continues to poison water supplies. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg — which is also melting, incidentally.

So could this be a turning point for environmental awareness in Argentina? Sadly, I don’t believe so. Rallying a new ‘enviro-army‘ to the beat to the anti-Monsanto war drum is at best, a waste of a big opportunity, and at worst, could splinter the movement — leading to another lost decade of progress. That sounds harsh, but in the context of stories like these, looking at Monsanto is missing the forest for the trees. To have a lasting impact, the movement has to get better structurally and strategically. As ironic as this sounds, activists in Argentina need to start thinking like big multinational businesses do.

The Lack of Argentine NGOs

Wesner didn’t shy away from the big question: How exactly did major political events and crises affect the development of NGOs and green organisations? His conclusion: More than you can imagine. Building organisations that interfere with resource extraction under a repressive regime is, unsurprisingly, almost impossible.

There is one notable exception: Fundación Vida Silvestre, or The Wild Life Foundation, which was founded in 1977 – not exactly the golden age of environmentalism. However they’re positioned as a satellite to the WWF, who are more concerned about the conservation of iconic native wildlife, and less about the sources of human pollution. This isn’t an organisation that has been looking (or willing) to ask the big, current questions of human development.

On the other hand, Greenpeace International has recently made its own move into the Argentine spotlight, billboard campaigns and all. And it makes sense. Greenpeace has always been a catch-all organization with brand recognition, world-class marketing and the financing to sustain clever campaigns. But Greenpeace – not unlike large multinationals – is more interested in curating its global strategy than giving its local subordinates large autonomy over their own strategy. This isn’t a criticism of Greenpeace. They’re fantastic at writing cheques to smaller organizations and this model serves the movement well in other countries. But we’re back in the same place: To whom do they send support in Argentina?

The solution starts with the development of a local NGO. As Wesner suggested, the structure of Argentine politics does little favors for environmentalist influence, where the factional system makes it difficult to leverage broader support from decision-makers, like governors and other local politicians. What do newly-formed NGOs have to bargain with in Argentina? In other countries, NGOs can mount campaigns against established parties, unsettling their voter drives by mobilizing their green-minded members, a behind-the-scenes army that can plant seeds in the minds of sympathetic ‘regular’ voters.

Unfortunately in Argentina, economic development is the obsession of every politician. Political power structures here are so money hungry that they prioritize resources extraction over all other concerns, needing business to feel like their getting its money’s worth for the ‘donations’ they make. This money is then ‘recycled’ so politicians can keep their bases unquestioning support. And the factional nature of it all makes ‘issue penetration’ impossible — politicians simply don’t care nor do they need to. Protests aren’t just the main environmental activist strategy right now, it’s the entire strategy. And in a country with no qualms of using bullets and batons to quell ‘uppity hippies’, we end up with sympathy-garnering image collages as the only takeaway. So you were persecuted by the state – in Argentina, who isn’t?

This is why building a real NGO is so essential. The theory of Capacity Building, summarized as ‘developing the competencies and abilities of people to overcome their countries challenges’, can be divided into 4 parts for NGOs: Conceptual Framework (a charter), Organizational Attitude (an ethos), Vision and Strategy (leadership) and Organizational Structure (hierarchy and resource division). Trends come and go, attention spans start to wane – and without a formalization of a strategy to deal with this flow of energy, Facebook groups, built around the flavor-of-the-year issue will have positive growth periods followed by obscurity.  From a marketing perspective, this is an unacceptable loss of opportunity.

Instead, what is needed is better organizations – where donations, resource-pooling and interest representation can take place using big issues as vehicles, not the sole proposition. So you’re worried about food safety and toxicity, but you’re part of a middle-class family who also worries about youth employment? A well-resourced NGO marketing team could use the Monsanto issue to target a mother-of-two, worried about the future of her children, tailoring a message to entice her into becoming involved. Or a representative trained in PR could better use free marketing opportunities – like a TV appearance – by taking into account viewer demographics to better target his or her broadcast, depending on organizational strategy.

The anatomy of a sales pitch, in an environmentalist context.
The anatomy of a sales pitch, in an environmentalist context.

You may have noticed that I’m basically describing the tricks of established political organization. Absolutely I am. But there’s a key difference: With NGOs, there’s no pressure to win votes, only sympathy, hearts-minds and maybe a small donation. Growth is not limited by how delicately an organization can balance all the voter issues into one coherent message – a classic limitation of minority parties seeking votes. Political groups have to be very careful with their wording. Environmental NGOs, by contrast, can be aggressively vague and attack with single-issues on top of the existing structure.

Monsanto: Means to an end

It’s all well and good to run a Facebook page, drum up support for flash protests, and attempt to do a David to their Goliath, fighting against the man. But being solely concerned with the Monsanto issue from a protest standpoint is a wasted opportunity for environmentalists to achieve broader support – more importantly, the kind that could raise funds via donations. Tactics can’t be an afterthought.

To illustrate, imagine the full force of this idea: A suggestion that Argentines, an agriculturally proud people, are complicit in widespread agricultural contamination. It doesn’t need to be centered on the vilification of capitalism, but sold on idea that large organizations are tricking the lower-class into highly experimental cultivation techniques with no scientific basis for success. This can be backed with hard research on GM soy crop and the effects of agrochemicals. International animal rights activists have used campaigns like this for years — that it’s not about big pharma’s need to experiment for furthering knowledge, it’s the reckless attitude towards how it’s done.

Under the current structure, however, the competency to pull this campaign off will never be developed. Running a Facebook group is one thing, but coordinated, targeted marketing requires corporate-level skills – which requires corporate-level training and promotion. I’m not saying these groups should delete their page – they’re necessary communication tools – but for example, after searching for thirty minutes to find a place to easily donate money or contribute my time, all I found was impersonal email addresses with no start-off point. Subject: “Hola, Quiero ayudarte con el movimiento de defensa del medio ambiente”? More to the point: I’m a trained software developer, yet without an organizational structure in place, I’d likely be relegated to holding a sign somewhere – a lost opportunity, albeit small, for the movement.

Worse still, without clear decision making channels, you can’t control your message in the first place. An example: Monsanto is in the process of developing drought-resistant crop, which in a world of climate change and an uncertain ecological future seems to be worth pursuing, right? But the issue of chemical over-spray, worker safety and water safety are being conflated with dark science-fiction thoughts – like fears about the consequences of genetic engineering as a concept.

In practice, making crops more resistant to roundup causes more roundup to be used. This is prone to abuse — like artificially raising short-term crop yields — thus measurably more dangerous for the environment in a very direct ‘over-use of chemicals’ way. Making crops resistant to drought, however, is a different topic. It seems to me to be an area totally worthy of scientific pursuit by Monsanto, albeit under a watchful eye of the world. We have 9 billion people to feed and a world slowly losing arable land to soil dryness – and it’s too late to turn back the clock on climate change. Smart science may be our last hope of keeping this world food secure and thus peaceful. This reasoning was why the head of the Climate Corporation agreed to be bought out by Monsanto – a controversial decision, idealistic in its own way, but a bargain made in the name of scientific progress.

Don’t get me wrong, I want these issues debated, but it needs to be done separately. Without divisions in the activist power structure, they’re running the risk of alienating potential recruits and future donors by being perceived as kooky, unscientific naturalists. It’s OK to be a skeptic of science (well not really *cough*), but that ideology should be part of a separate NGO, away from the more reasonable mainstream activist, who would like to address the obvious problems instead of playing to people’s apocalyptic fantasies. Organizational credibility is important – Greenpeace discovered this a long time ago.

So where are we headed, environmentalists of Argentina? I remember having a discussion about these issues with an environmentalist friend of mine, an Argentine. She told me, in short, that I was ignorant – there does exist environmental groups working their backsides off, with leadership, productive management and all those business essential. And that maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. But that’s exactly the point: I did look hard.

Let me conclude this bluntly: If your NGO/organisation website isn’t showing up in Google’s first page results for phrases like ‘medio ambiente Argentina‘, nor does it have a landing page or any logical site design, how much ‘leadership’ or ‘management’ can your organization have, really?

Please, don’t make the mistake of having your movement defined by the Monsanto issue.

Instead, beat Monsanto at their own game.

Like my ideas? Follow me on twitter @colincdocherty today!