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The Environment in the Age of the Internet

Heike Graf

2. The Environment in Disguise: Insurgency and Digital Media in the Southern Cone

Virginia Melián

Texte intégral

1During the last few decades, a growing awareness of the consequences of human activity on the environment and an intense debate about environmental risks and the threat posed by civilization have become evident in Western societies. This has been stressed by, for example, Ulrich Beck (1992) and Manuel Castells (2000). In Latin America, however, environmental concerns have remained barely visible. Civil society organisations and social movements struggle to bring to the fore their concerns about the risks that increasing pollution poses to the ecosystem and the life of local communities. Political elites generally downplay environmental concerns, arguing that these are ‘luxury problems’, typical of some industrialized countries but hardly relevant in the context of developing societies, since the latter must exploit their natural resources in order to provide social welfare for their citizens. Environmental norms are generally weak in the region. Lack of attention on part of the established political parties has contributed to a lack of mainstream, journalistic coverage, since the media give preference to issues prioritised by political and economic powers, rather than those that concern the civil society (as has been pointed out by Waisbord 2000; Hallin and Papathanassopoulos 2002; Fox and Waisbord 2002 and Rockwell and Janus 2003). For instance, a recent study on the space given to mobilisations in the main national newspapers of 17 Latin American countries reveals that less than 15% of the total number of protests covered between 2009 and 2010 were focused on environmental issues (Calderón 2012).

2Despite scant media coverage, inadequate environmental policies, and a lack of political interest, recent protests organised by citizens’ groups and various NGOs based in different countries demonstrate that the continent is far from unconcerned about the environment. In several cases, civic engagement has been organised in response to industrial pollution that affects protected or untouched areas, citizens’ living conditions and the future of flora and fauna, as documented by Jussi Pakkasvirta (2008), Silvio Waisbord and Enrique Peruzzoti (2009) and Yanina Welp and Jonathan Wheatly (2012). In many cases, the citizens’ concern focuses on the exploitation of natural resources, often by polluting industries that move to the South to avoid stringent regulations in their countries of origin (FAO 2009, 77). This upsurge in civil society engagement, in general, occurs in the context of Latin America’s so-called third wave of democratisation, which is characterised by a significant increase in civic activity in post-authoritarian nations (Avritzer 2002, 3). The rising number of Latin-American environmental protests over the last few years, and the rapidly changing conditions of the continent’s media landscape caused by citizens’ increasing access to the Internet and mobile phones, raise questions about the role played by digital media in organisation and mobilisation, dissemination of information, formulation of arguments and facilitation of public debate. In this chapter, I analyse how digital media were used for the formulation, dissemination and organisation of an environmental protest action against the construction of pulp mills on the banks of the Uruguay River and against monoculture forestry in Uruguay. Three different groups, one grassroots organisation based in Argentina and two environmental NGOs in Uruguay, led the protests from 2005 until 2009. Special focus is placed on the ways in which arguments behind the protest were formulated. This protest movement — and in particular the Argentinean grassroots group component — has been seen as a turning point in the historical trajectory of environmental movements, according to Waisbord and Peruzzotti (2009), both because of the large number of people involved and because of the media attention it managed to receive. The results presented here are based on my doctoral thesis, completed in September 2012 at Stockholm University.

3This case study offers an opportunity to examine the interplay between digital media and environmental protest in a non-Western context. The organisations studied are based in countries that are comparable in terms of Internet usage and demographics. The period under consideration, 2005–2009, is likewise significant because it coincides with the initial expansion of digital media in these countries. The case also represents an historical turning point because levels of Internet and mobile phone access expanded greatly in Latin America during and after this period. Over the last years, the advancement of social media platforms and smart phones has made new kinds of digital media available. Young people organised in new constellations of spontaneous groups increasingly use several networking opportunities embedded in social media and smart phones (compared to newsletters, e-mail and SMS used initially). For instance, social media played a prominent role during the so called ‘Chilean Winter’, a protest organised by high school and college students, who demanded changes in the free-market policy governing education, energy and the environment (Valenzuela et al. 2012). This interaction between media and civic engagment has also been studied in societies within the region that do not have a strong mobilisation tradition (Welp and Wheatley 2012). The anti-corruption movement and the spontaneous mobilisation among middle class and young people against transportation costs and corruption in Brazil in July 2013 are likewise examples of social media being used extensively as a means of disseminating protest (Moseley and Layton 2013). It is worth noticing that Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil are among the Latin American countries with the greatest Internet usage. However, connectivity is not the sole determining factor shaping social media and protest in Latin America. An historical tradition of mobilisation and the experience protest may play a role where connectivity is low. The mobilisation against the construction of a cement plant at the border of the national park Los Haitises in the Dominican Republic is a case in point. In countries with low Internet access and weak mobilisation tradition, activists have made extensive use of social media in their protests, and have achieved significant results according to Welp and Wheatley (2012). The protest against pulp mills and forest monoculture in Uruguay and Argentina mainly involved middle class, middle-aged activists, some of them well experienced in traditional mobilisation strategies. This chapter sets out to investigate the role played by digital media as a means to disseminate information on environmental concerns publicly, and organise mobilisation in a region where the mere formulation of environmental concerns is problematic. In such a context, environmental mobilisation becomes a sort of balancing act between trying to capture media attention through spectacular physical mobilisations and negotiating public opinion around environmental themes. This case is not representative of all environmental movements in Latin America but it offers theoretical insights into the interplay between digital media and environmental protest in non-Western socio- economic and cultural settings.


4The last thirty years’ succession of democratically elected governments, with almost no interruptions through coups d’état, have provided the necessary political framework for strengthening civil society organisations and their initiatives in Latin America. Environmental movements, in particular, experienced a resurgence in the 1990s. These movements focused on finding solutions to specific problems, at a national or regional level, in coordination with governments, universities and research centres, and have therefore seen their legitimacy increased (Calderón 2012, 233). However, environmental concerns are often left off of the political agenda and ignored in mainstream media. Data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Internet World Stats (IWS) places Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile among the most intensive users of the Internet in the region of the Southern Cone, in particular Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. General connectivity rates increased rapidly in the 2000s. Over 50% of the population in these countries had access to the Internet in 2010, compared to 30% in 2005 (Calderón 2012). About 100% of all Argentineans and Uruguayans had a mobile phone in 2008 (Bibolini and Baker 2009, 252).

5One of the most significant environmental conflicts in recent years in Latin America, both in terms of the number of people involved, national, regional and international political repercussions, and the duration of mainstream media coverage, took place in connection with the establishment of two pulp mills by the Finnish-owned Metsä-Botnia (hereafter Botnia) and the Spanish-owned Empresa Nacional de Celulosa España (Ence). These pulp mills were to be established on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River, the geographical and political border between Argentina and Uruguay. The protest movement initially had three main driving groups: the Asamblea Ciudadana Ambiental de Gualeguayú (ACAG) — a grassroots organisation with its base in Argentina — and the environmental NGOs Grupo Guayubira and REDES Amigos de la Tierra, based in Uruguay. From 2005 to 2008, these organisations led the fight against the construction of pulp mills, at first in unison and later separately. The Uruguayan NGOs also protested against the cultivation of eucalyptus trees in Uruguay. This non-native, fast-growing tree provides raw material for the pulp industry.

6The movement began to take shape in 2005, when 40,000 people from Argentina and Uruguay gathered to block the traffic on a bridge linking the two countries. The blockades and protests continued tenaciously until 2009 and one of the bridges was blockaded for two years, closed for both cargo and private traffic. The protest actions and the authorities’ difficulties in reaching an agreement on the location and control of the planned pulp mills severely disrupted diplomatic relations between Argentina and Uruguay. The diplomatic conflict was initially dealt with through bilateral negotiations, but when these failed, the countries’ governments sought international assistance to solve their differences. They entreated the Spanish king, Juan Carlos de Borbón to mediate between them, and appealed to the Regional Court of Justice of the Southern Common Market, Mercosur (formed at this point in time by a regional agreement between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), as well as to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The International Court of Justice reached a verdict in 2010, which brought an end to the activists’ blockade. This eased the diplomatic tensions, though it did not completely silence dissent.

7As a consequence of the intense protest actions, the Spanish plant was, in fact, never built. The Finnish plant was eventually built, but is now subject to stricter environmental monitoring than had been stipulated before the protests took place. The plant is now being monitored both formally, by the nations involved, and informally, by citizen groups. Today, the groups are still active, but no longer work in unison. Their main vehicles for dissent through online platforms, e.g. websites, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, rather than protests.

Digital Media and Protest

8The field of media studies has set out to understand the rapid changes in the organisation of dissent that have come with the widespread availability of digital media. Of particular concern are those civil society actors who rely heavily on digital media when embarking on protest actions (Rodríguez et al. 2014). Many scholars have highlighted the synergies between the Internet and the non-hierarchical, flexible, identity-based, decentralised, autonomous and loosely structured networks of social movements (MacCaughey and Ayers 2003; van de Donk et al. 2004; de Jong et al. 2005; Leivrouw 2011). In addition, it has been stressed that the use of digital information technologies considerably increases activists’ chances of disseminating alternative discourses, as these groups might find it difficult or impossible to enter the public sphere through mainstream media (Coyer et al. 2007; Bailey et al. 2008; Atkinson 2010). Some argue that social media have provided new prospects for organising and have accelerated the dissemination of contentious politics among citizens and civil society organisations to a degree hitherto unimagined (Shirky 2011). Such capability has probably enhanced the activists’ chances of reaching the mainstream media globally (Cottle 2011). This has bearing on the dissemination of protests beyond regional and national territories.

9At the same time, it has been argued that the logic of protest action itself is changing, which makes it necessary to look into the organisation of dissent in different ways. Analysing protests organised recently Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg (2011) advance the concept of ‘connective action’ as a way to distinguish the mobilisations basically driven from social media from ‘collective action’, where the role of established ations is more prominent. However, beyond the discussion on the distinction between collective and connective action, when it comes to the organisation of protest to achieve predefined goals, a pure instrumental role of media seems to be generally rejected as a standpoint (Carrol and Hackett 2006; Downing 2008; Treré 2012). This is because collective action is considered communicative per se, since social movements occupy a space defined by the participants’ mode of interaction and mode of engagement. In this ‘collective action space’ multiple communication strategies and technologies can be adapted as the situation demands (Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl 2012). It is then necessary to study the whole range of media practices, the relationships among them and the political, economic and cultural context in which they are embedded, in order to comprehend how media practices form part of the processes of organising protest actions.

10On the other hand, less optimistic observers signal that the use of the Internet for communication among activists makes them easily traceable by governments that wish to hunt down and punish either individual activists or networks of people and organisations (Morozov 2011; Leistert 2013). This obviously influences the use of these digital technologies for the organisation of dissent and, in practice, reduces their potential impact on democratisation processes. Empirically, there is evidence that well-established, environmental NGOs make relatively little use of the Internet, even in the media-saturated contexts of some Western societies (Kenix 2007; Stein 2009; Waters et al. 2009). As these groups display low levels of information, mobilisation, interactivity both on their websites and social network pages, it may indicate that their organisational structures do not always make use of the Internet’s opportunities to the degree postulated and celebrated in some literature (Stein 2009) This is mainly the case for more or less established organisations in industrialised countries. More empirical research in media systems, like the Latin American one, is still necessary but some evidence suggests a similar trend (Melián 2012).

11In this respect, the notion of ‘media practice’, as discussed by Nick Couldry (2004) is useful. This is the idea that the principles of media-oriented practices are generated in the social world. These are to be found in people’s understanding, not in researchers’ a priori conceptualisations. Because media also represent the social world, they inevitably mediate such practices. Thus media practices have direct consequences on how social norms are defined and ordered. This is not to say that all practices are mediated but that significant social practices are represented and sometimes organised through media. To put emphasis on media practices means to focus on the understanding of the principles whereby, and the mechanisms through which, these practices are ordered. Media practice theory helps scholars approach the kinds of tasks people are perform with media as well as what people say about media. For activists, actions are then weaved into a practice not just by explicit understandings, but also by the governance of shared rules and references, such as projects and beliefs. In this way, the conditions and limitations of activists’ media practices correspond to a shared framework that shows a deep sense of interconnectedness with the particular socio-cultural and political context studied. The aim here is to explore the ways activists within the movement in question used new digital media tools and formulated an environmental narrative against the backdrop of the particular mobilisation traditions and historical context of Latin America.

The Study

12The study of social movements is generally complex, because these are fluid and flexible social configurations that are difficult to assess even in terms of duration (Melucci 1996). The study of digital media practices also poses difficulties because they are not easy to observe. Many studies of the media practices of social movements focus on one type of media, most often the movements’ websites such as in the work of Laura Stein (2011). Other scholars have focused on the movements’ posts on social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter as in the work of Bennet and Segerberg (2011). In a departure from this methodology we rely here on semi-structured interviews with all the activists in charge of communication tasks in the three main groups of the movement (9 in total), the groups’ homepages from 2005 to 2008 (a total of 190), and selected texts on these websites published during the same period (a total of 24). As far as the selection of activists interviewed is concerned, I focus entirely on those who were in charge of communication tasks. A representative sample of activists from each group would not have been ideal, as I am concerned with the communication practices of the groups involved in the movement rather than on such practices at the individual level. Because the interviews target those in charge of communication tasks, the perspective of many other activists involved in the groups are left out of the study. One reason for choosing this method is the difficulty of, in the case of the ACAG, identifying and interviewing activists within a loose network of individuals, and in the case of the NGOs, of interviewing people who did not actually work with communication tasks. Another factor is that the activists directly involved in communication tasks within the groups had greater influence within the movement when it came to determining and executing these tasks. This probably also gave these activists a wider perspective of the numerous aspects involved in the organisation and execution of these tasks.

13David Silverman (2006) calls this approach ‘purposive sampling’ as the empirical material used aims at illuminating the specific media practices on which I focus. The use of interviews offers advantages because informants described practices that occurred in the recent past from their own perspectives. At the same time, this approach has limitations in the sense that informants provide the interviewer with a reconstruction of the practices. However, interviews were preferable to dependence on empirical material generated by participant observation, which would not have been possible in a study such as this one. I analyse the websites because they were the preferred online platform within this movement, and by homing in on some selected texts I perform the kind of deeper discourse analysis that better illuminates the importance of these websites to the movement.

14Thematic analysis was the method selected to analyse the interviews as it enabled the organisation of material according to the themes informants dealt with while maintaining the theoretical framework of the study. This analytical strategy implies a ‘pattern matching’ technique where similar or alternative patterns regarding the theoretical points of departure are sought and analysed in the empirical materials with the goal of building an explanatory approach (Yin 2003).

15To analyse the websites I adapted Malin Sveningsson, Mia Lövheim, and Magnus Bergquist’s (2003) model because it was suitable for mapping the structure of websites in accordance with their main functions. Furthermore, my discussion of selected texts from these web pages has been informed by Norman Fairclough’s (1995) model for discourse analysis, because this method facilitates the analysis of power relations as represented in the texts, which reflect the power relations in which the activists were immersed.

Camouflaged Arguments

16In societies where environmental concerns rank low, activists make an effort to present their arguments in terms that may appeal to both the populace and mainstream media. One way of doing this, as shown by the analysis, is to transfer discursive tropes from themes that enjoy high status to themes that are considered less relevant. It is a way of packaging environmental concerns within more easily recognizable discursive frames, often those commonly used by mainstream news media. In this manner, a low-status subject matter can be associated with an issue that is considered very relevant in a particular socio-cultural context. It is a way of increasing the apparent importance of the matter dealt with. The process of representing a certain issue as associated with another frame of discourse is a process of transformation, which involves what might be termed discourse camouflage.

17The organisation websites studied here functioned as platforms from which activists had the opportunity to formulate their concerns and claims. In Uruguay, in particular, websites were the sole platform where activists could voice their concerns, as mainstream media did not regularly make use of them as sources of information. The Argentinean mainstream media, on the other hand, used Argentinean and even Uruguayan activists as sources, mainly on the issue of the physical protests. The groups’ websites remain, then, the most important arena for activists to express arguments in their own terms.

18The analysis of these websites shows that the activists' claims were not directly formulated in environmental terms but were, in fact, framed in terms of political and economic consequences, especially where these clains concerned the social impact of the pulp mills and of forest monoculture. These political and economic arguments were sometimes linked to concerns about health problems, but without further specification of what would be the tangible consequences for human health. Arguments relating specifically to the consequences of pulp mills and forest monoculture for soil, water, air, flora, and fauna were rarely used. The environmental impact of pulp mills and forest monoculture was not presented as a forceful argument. Furthermore, the very word ‘environment’ was often absent from the activists’ argumentation. The following are examples of how the activists’ discourse was instead informed by political and economic concerns:

[The blockade] will help to establish a common oppositional front to the negative effects that will be registered in tourism, sports fishing, apiculture and agriculture on both sides of the Uruguay River. (Published by REDES on 29 April, 2005)

It becomes evident for the world that the national policy of the state is determined by a multinational and that the government of Mr Tabaré Vázquez is on its knees before the interest of Botnia, giving away the sovereignty of Uruguayans. (Published by ACAG on 9 November, 2007)

Until when will our government officials continue exchanging our rich patrimony for small mirrors and colourful beads? (Published by Guayubira Group on 30 April, 2005)

19The activists connected politics and protest on various levels. Firstly, the protest was linked discursively to contemporary national politics, and the relationship of this politics to global capital. This was the case, for instance, when it was repeatedly argued that support for the development of pulp mills and the forestry industry in the country was inconsistent with the political model that the ruling party defended before coming into power. The left coalition had traditionally opposed granting foreign capital benefits at the expense of natural resources. Approval for the construction of pulp mills, and thus the expansion of the forest model in practice, was seen as a hard retreat on the promised political positioning.

20The discursive interconnection between the protest and political argumentations became evident at another level: historical references linked the present situation to the colonial past. A parallel was established between the colonial past and the current political situation, described as post-colonial. Comparisons were made between the welcoming attitude of native people towards the Spanish and contemporary governments’ willingness to allow transnational companies to operate in these countries. The protest was conceived through a frame of post- colonial relationships between local and regional governance and the economic power of global companies. Activists depicted the post- colonial condition as the reluctance of contemporary Latin-American governments, in this case, Uruguay, to remain in control of national policies and regulations. Accusations were made that the governments sacrificed national resources, such as land and water, in the name of globalisation and for the benefit of national finances.

21Evidently, the argumentation from historical analogies and references to contemporary political activities implied a local or regional Spanish- speaking audience well versed both in the region's current affairs and is history. This indicates that it was never the intention of these activists to reach a more global audience. However, even though the various groups had similar lines of argumentation, and appealed to the same kind of reader, the ways in which their arguments were introduced and displayed on their websites varied greatly. While the Argentinean grassroots group mainly used slogans, short texts and visual elements, such as illustrations or pictures, to make their claims, the Uruguayan NGOs provided a wealth of texts of a reflective nature. This establishes a distinction between the ways in which different kinds of organisations arranged their online content. The use of slogans and short texts has been associated with loose formations that could be linked to the logic of connective action, while the use of long explanatory texts is more typical of established organisations within social movements. This case acted as confirmation. The grassroots organisation, which organised spontaneously in order to protest, preferred to communicate its discontent through the use of slogans and short texts. The environmental NGOs, active long before this protest and concerned with other contemporary issues, preferred to use longer and more in-depth texts to formulate their critique.

User-Generated Content and Mainstream Media

22Websites were conceived as public space belonging to activists. They were the online representation of the activists’ goals and raison d’être during all the years the conflict lasted. This online record was also seen as a way of positioning the organisation among other actors within the public sphere. In the process of appropriating this space, activists made choices about whether or not to formulate their opinions and concerns, as this implied a public positioning that could be harmful for them. The relationship between the protest groups and the respective national mainstream media greatly shaped how the informants conceptualised the online content they created. Activists working for the NGOs felt the Uruguayan mainstream media had aligned their discourse with the government’s closing all doors to reach the public in this way. Thus, the online content produced by the Uruguayan NGOs was considered the only way to reach citizens with counteractive information. It provided space for alternative perspectives, which were perceived as otherwise excluded from journalistic coverage. The online content was viewed as ‘balanced’ because it included alternative sources that were never utilised by mainstream media. Informants did not argue that they represented an objective stance but that they contributed to objectivity by disclosing themes, arguments and voices otherwise excluded. They saw their online media presence, therefore, as a sort of balancing act, or at least intended it as such. Websites became the only venues for expressing dissent when the NGOs ceased supporting blockades as the main form of protest (blockades were only continued by the Argentinean grassroots group). Even though NGOs ceased supporting the blockades, these activists were not used as sources by mainstream media.

23Constraints on the formulation of content related to contextual political issues did, however, blunt the counteractive character of the Uruguayan activists’ online output. The fact that Uruguay was ruled by a left-wing coalition greatly affected how they chose to express themselves. In practice, it determined the type of information that would be published on their websites, as well as the tone in which it was presented. Traditionally supportive of the ruling left coalition, the Uruguayan activists certainly used their websites to formulate public critiques, but they weighed their words carefully. In the beginning of the period under study, open criticism of the government was considered as nearly tantamount to political treason among these activists. Activists, aware of the nationalistic tone that had become associated with the issue of the construction of pulp mills in Uruguay, even in the mainstream media, were afraid of positioning themselves too clearly at the risk of becoming isolated on other issues. Later, when contesting views were practically banned from the mainstream news media, partly due to pressure exerted by the state, whose advertising was important to the economic survival of the media, the websites’ content became more radical, more openly oppositional to government policies.

24ACAG informants, on the other hand, did not see their online publishing as the only way to reach out to the citizens. They felt they could easily contact both local and national mainstream media, at least on the issue of the actual blockades. Instead, Argentinean activists used the organisation’s website, e-mails and newsletters to present themselves, their protest actions and resolutions, or short pieces of information about future events or past incidents. They felt that by using their website in this manner, they controlled a ‘public space’ from which they could publish information they considered relevant at exactly the time they wished. As mentioned above, there were no attempts to formulate long and explicative counteractive accounts. Activists explained this in terms of the potential audience they could reach. They preferred to talk directly to journalists because they considered mainstream news media a far more effective means of reaching a large number of people. These activists were frequently journalistic sources on the issue of the physical mobilisations. However, they did not engage in explicative argumentations about the environmental consequences of the pulp and forest industries at any length, either with the journalists or on their website.

Networking beyond the Digital

25Informants agreed that the Internet was used extensively as a means for engagement, for establishing a network that linked the different groups, other organisations and citizens in the region and beyond. Informants assessed the digital exchange as unique, firstly because it provided valuable insights, arguments and information, which were not to be found elsewhere, especially not in the mainstream media. Secondly, it was considered of key importance because it was the only possible way of divulging information generated by the groups of activists. This positioning coincides with the notion of ‘social movement media’ that include counter-information produced by voices often excluded from mainstream media (Downing 2008).

26The use of the Internet for disseminating information, and for collecting insights about the forest industry from around the world, increased significantly during the studied period. For example, in 2005 the ACAG operated with a list of fifty e-mail addresses; by 2007 the number of addressees had had grown to two thousand, counting individuals, mainstream media and other environmental organisations or ‘asambleas’, 250 of these being activists from Gualeguaychú. Guayubira also increased the number of people listed during the period studied, and by 2009 they had 1000 contacts that they regularly kept informed about the state of the protest. In addition, lists of e-mail accounts of members of parliament and of mainstream media journalists were used for sending specific information about activist claims and activities.

27Networking was rarely used for promoting participation on online campaigns. A small number of online campaigns, listed on one of the websites, show that this possibility was used only to a limited extent. Informants said that online campaigns were not considered the primary method of protest. Instead, e-mails and newsletters served as the means of disseminating information to generate awareness and offline engagement (from participation in meetings, workshops, conferences to attendance to the physical mobilisations). This is because of their multiplication effect in weaving online and offline networks. Often the exchange of information was initiated digitally, but was expanded through the generation of instances of information exchange that compensated for the existent digital divide. In praxis, the content of e-mails and newsletters sent by activists was printed out and discussed at meetings and workshops held among people with very limited access to e-mail. Local radio broadcasts informing people about the protest and the arguments behind it were also based on this material. This combination of digital and analogue media practices illustrates how a digital divide, still present in the region, was overcome to some degree.

28Networking with organisations and individuals situated outside of the region was less frequent than networking within the region. When contacts were made with organisations or people outside of the region, it was for the purpose of exchanging information about the forest industry and about campaigns against pulp mills in other parts of the world. The environmental NGOs, which already had contact with global environmental organisations concerned with forest exploitation and/or pulp mills, made frequent use of these links. However, they did not seek their support to initiate digital mobilisations that could propagate beyond the region. Physical actions, which implied the participation of the local populace and regional organisations, were the preferred means of mobilisation. A strong mobilisation tradition, both in Argentina and Uruguay, may explain why these activists relied on proven ways of protesting, such as the blockade.

29On the other hand, all the groups found global networking vital for meeting the enormous demand for information on pulp mill technology, forest industry development and environmental activism, information which was not to be found locally, particularly during the first years of the protest. The NGO informants had worked with the issue of monoculture of eucalyptus trees before, but they had hardly any knowledge of pulp mills. ACAG informants began reading about pulp mills and the forest industry when the movement first started. ‘We had a permanent exchange of information, advice and coordination locally and globally. Globally we were in contact with the WRM (World Rainforest Movement) and organisations in Spain regarding Ence, Finland regarding Botnia and in general with Portugal, and then regionally with Brazil, Argentina and Chile’ (Male, REDES). This contact was purely geared towards getting information about the industry. Also, web searches in general were judged to be of great importance when it came to understanding the consequences of pulp mills and forest monoculture. Some of the interviewees referred to web searches as magical and even nurturing. These searches, together with the information exchange with organisations in other regions, improved the activists’ understanding of forest industry and pulp mills, and helped them formulate their arguments. An example of how global discourses, via the Internet, influenced the movement’s formulations is a key slogan used by the ACAG, which reads, ‘Gualeguaychú does not give social license to Botnia’. One of the informants from the ACAG, during his Internet searches, became very interested in the notion of ‘social license’, which had been used in Canada. The term refers to how companies should strive to gain the support of the community that will be affected by their activities before actually initiating any changes. Fascinated with the idea, he spread the understanding of this notion within the ACAG. Soon after, the term was widely applied by the ACAG activists. In the years to come this slogan would be used on their websites, banners, stickers, and t-shirts.

Mobile Personal Engagement

30Although activists had access to mobile phones during the whole period, it was not viewed as being crucial to the organisation of collective action among these informants. Mobile communication practices per se were not seen as something that could spark civic engagement. Informants assigned less importance to mobile phones than the Internet when it came to mobilisation and communication of collective action, and they did not consider mobile phones a fundamental medium of communication or intervention for grassroots movements and political activism as shown, for instance, by Manuel Castells (2009). Rather, they considered the mobile phone a means of person-to-person communication. Its private character, as perceived by informants, had to do with the range of imagined possibilities mobile communication granted for civic engagement in this context. Certainly, technology per se does not initiate dissent. The actualisation of the possibilities enabled by technologies within particular contexts, which create particular collective action spaces that host civic activities, is marked both by convention and innovation and depends on the surrounding conditions and the imagined (or unimagined) possibilities that attend them (Papacharissi 2010).

31However, even though the mobile phones practices were associated with the private sphere, it became clear, as a result of the interviews, that in practice they had an important role in mobilisation. The ACAG activists used mobile phones when organising actual physical demonstrations, as these required detailed organisation before, during and after the event. Some activists had a system for distributing urgent messages by using mobile phones. Chains of text messages were agreed on for cases of emergency. When an activist had something urgent to communicate, he or she would send a text message to the activist who was next on a ready-made list, who would then send pass it on, and so on, until the circle was completed. This system assured that the message would be sent to all the people involved at a minimum cost for each individual. Text messages were primarily distributed through established personal networks. This is consistent with the findings of current research on the personal character of mobile phone communication (Villi 2011).

32Accessibility was another defining feature of the activists’ mobile phone practices. The fact that the mobile phone was available regardless of time or place made it an important means of communicating among themselves and with journalists. Whether people were located in different cities and areas, or were performing blockades in the middle of the countryside, mobile phones were used to maintain active contact amongst the informants whenever needed. Mobile phones were used as windows onto the blockade actions, as a way of taking part from a distance. This possibility allowed informants to ‘be there’ even though the protests occurred in different locations, sometimes simultaneously, and often far apart. In this sense, activists were able to deploy spectacular physical demonstrations in isolated places, far from these countries’ capitals, while still staying in contact with each other and being aware of each other’s actions.

33The accessibility provided by mobile phones was also utilised during extraordinary events. In such cases, mobile phones were used in order to rapidly distribute information through the personal networks of activists. These channels could then disseminate the information further, among the media as well. Mobile phones were able to accelerate the generation and dissemination of content (text and images) when extraordinary events associated with protest actions took place. However, at this time, mobile phone cameras were mainly put into use when these extraordinary circumstances had to be documented visually. It is important to remember that the use of pictures is linked to the technology. Mobile phones were not, at this time, smartphones. Accordingly, activists were not able to use the Internet as a cheap means for distributing pictures. They used the telephone line for sending images. The cost of sending these images (considerably more expensive than sending texts) limited the use of mobile phones among the informants, and gave pictures a special status. Something ‘important’ had to happen if a picture was to be distributed. The production of documentation for activists’ claims was considered such an occasion. Clearly this has changed with the introduction and popularisation of smartphones with Internet connections, which has created an enormous flow of images taken with mobile phones on social media. Pictures of a big stain in the river’s water were sent, for instance, to support activists’ claims of contamination of the river. Initially distributed by mobile phones to journalists and activists in charge of communications, these images were rapidly published on the websites and further distributed via e-mail, the cheapest option at this time. Images published on websites or distributed by e-mail often had contextualising captions to reinforce the message that the activists wanted to convey. Images captured by mobile phones were conceived as unique value generators, which added a sense of affirmation and importance.

34The ability to stay in contact through mobile phones contributed to their sense of togetherness even when they were far apart. Mobile phones contributed, then, to a sense of belonging and comradeship among some of the informants. Informants saw receiving and sending text messages as important measures that helped them deal emotionally with drawbacks and failures. They could express feelings, provide support and receive encouragement. The act of writing and sending a text that would remain on someone else’s screen, or receiving a text that could be read several times afterwards, was viewed as a concrete way of providing and receiving the encouragement necessary for further engagement.

When a comrade was lying in hospital severely injured (during a protest) I received a text message with every step that was being taken by the doctors. I wrote back and asked them to come closer to him and tell him that I was there. (Woman, ACAG)

35Another feature of the use of mobile phone was coupled to issues of personal safety. Maintaining a blockade of an international bridge in solitary places was not always a smooth process. People became angry, especially when the blockades were not permanent — causing delays in crossing the bridge and sometimes forcing people to wait hours before the activists would let them through. The mobile phone often provided a sense of personal safety. Informants participating in the blockades felt they were not ‘alone’ if they had their mobiles at hand. They felt they were always able to contact the police or other activists or the media from the middle of the countryside. The use of mobile phones meant, again, being in contact at a distance. It was a means of obtaining help in the case of an emergency. Under the circumstances, the help could not arrive immediately, but the mobile phone represented a sort of connection to somewhere else and someone else besides those involved in the actual situation. The connection was as real for the person calling as for the person listening to the conversation, or witnessing the message being sent or received.

Opportunities for Public Debate

36Digital media offers increased opportunities for public debate on various online platforms. Whether people debate within like-minded groups or engage in discussions with those who represent other beliefs, public debate must be considered relevant for the promotion of awareness, which again may prompt or strengthen civic engagement. Accordingly, debate generally plays a positive role for democracy and for society (Dahlgren 2007). At this time and amongst these informants, online public debate was in fact not viewed as an opportunity to promote awareness and, in turn, the civic engagement of citizens. The informants did not recognise their websites, existing blogs or other online platforms as opportunities to promote a ‘serious’ debate on the issue. Rather they argued that ongoing discussions on these forums were focused mainly on the blockade as a means of protest, not on the benefits and disadvantages of the installation of pulp mills in Uruguay or the development of the forest industry in the country, which expanded forest monoculture in order to provide raw material for these plants. Nor did these informants perceive the discussions as a way of provoking a wide debate on the consequences of the construction of the pulp mills. Neither blogs nor online forums were viewed as places where one could engage in constructive public debate. Generally, online debates were perceived as serving the interests of the pulp mill companies and/or personal interests (people trying to gain points from governmental officials or the companies). They did not think the online discussions contributed to a meaningful exchange of opinions and arguments; rather, they saw these spaces in which some explicitly nationalistic points of views were formulated. The informants were aware of the existence of a blogosphere around the movement against the pulp mills but they did not actively engage in it. Some of the informants had made comments on these platforms on rare occasions, but had not engaged actively in these debates, nor with supporters or opponents. The existing online debate opportunities were seen as venues for radicalised and personal opinions, either defending or rejecting the blockade of the river in nationalistic terms.

37The analysis of the NGOs’ websites shows that they were not actively used to promote public debate on the issue. Discussion forums were basically unavailable. Guayubira and REDES activists explicitly rejected and rarely even discussed having interactive features, according to the informants. They conceived their websites mainly as places to make their beliefs and arguments available to those who wanted to read them, but did not go so far as to initiate an online dialogue. Alternative interactive ways of promoting the participation of citizens were only available on the website of the grassroots group. Grassroots activists were more interested in opening up possibilities for public participation, but they did not explicitly conceive their websites as places to facilitate online dialogue, since participation was regulated. Still, the website of the grassroots organisation provided readers with some opportunity to share user-generated content in the form of pictures, videos and texts by submitting them to the Webmaster (far from full-fledged interactivity).

38As on other issues, the grassroots movement and the NGOs differed in their conception of online public debate. NGO activists had an unspoken understanding that they were not to use blogs as a place for debate. They did not participate as individuals and only made comments, in cases when they felt compelled to answer a direct attack. ACAG members agreed that blogs were a hostile arena for debating the protest, but most of them had published comments on an individual basis from time to time — sometimes anonymously. The activists viewed anonymous participation positively, because it allowed them to abandon discussions in which the tone became too aggressive. When they gave their names, they felt compelled to continue participating in the discussion. Anonymity did not, however, promote meaningful debate. Informants reacted against what they perceived as outright aggressive comments, often expressed in nationalistic terms. Papacharissi has argued that certain forms of heated online exchange can be understood as expressions of keen interest and even as a necessary element when face-to-face communication does not exist (Papacharissi 2004). However, informants generally avoided heated exchanges, suggesting that fierce online arguments could be avoided if they sought out online platforms that reflected their own opinions.

39Although awareness of various kinds of online public debates did not translate into active participation among informants, there were those who, at the time of the interviews (September 2009), had begun to question this inactivity, or at least to reflect on it. Some of the Uruguayan activists considered the need to start looking at social media such as Facebook and Twitter as means of disseminating the campaign, as these social networks were then becoming more popular. Some ACAG informants were not content with the limited interactivity on the website. They complained about missed opportunities for spreading protest action via social media. Some did not think it sufficed to publish comments, pictures, videos, illustrations, music, and documents sent by people via the website’s e-mail. They explained that this had not been possible due to, on the one hand, a lack of resources and, on the other, the particular character of the protest movement, as the movement defined itself through demonstrations, not online protests. Again, the fact that social media were becoming popular at this time, and that these activists were middle-aged, may explain their attitude to the use of various kinds of interactive, online platforms.

Civic Engagement and Media Practice

40Activists’ Internet and mobile phone practices reflected how an understanding of the relationship between civic engagement and digital media depends upon factors such as type of organisation, age of activists involved, and their previous experience with more traditional forms of mobilisation, beyond access to digital technology. Although the activists interviewed had access to the Internet from the beginning of the period studied, and used it to formulate and disseminate their arguments in order to seek offline engagement, access new information and contact environmental organisations in other parts of the world, patterns of Internet-based media practices and understanding were nevertheless linked to factors such as type of organisation, age and the previous mobilisation experience.

41Depending on the type of organisations activists viewed digital media use differently, either purely organisational versus personal in the case of NGOs activists, or as personal practice driven by the protest’s interest in the case of the grassroots activists. NGO activists viewed media practices as something belonging exclusively to the activities performed via the organisation. They made a clear distinction between their organisational and their personal digital media practices. NGO activists used the organisations’ channels to act in the name of the organisation. Personal digital media practices were not considered suitable for promoting the organisation’s activities or arguments. They separated them in this way:

The colleagues that worked more with the campaign had the task of representing REDES. This is an internal organisation issue. Even though I belong to REDES I cannot give personal opinions. (Man, REDES)

42On the other hand, grassroots activists conceived media digital practices as something integral to both their participation in the ACAG and to their personal initiatives in relation to the movement. For instance, they all produced, post and re-post information on the movement, the protests and also on other environmental and social protests or organisations in the region. In addition, grassroots activists perceived digital media practices as something empowering, because it gave them the opportunity to contact individuals and organisations directly. Able to get in contact with journalists, experts and organisations grassroots activists felt they could make people or organisations accountable in regards to what they did or said on the media. Opportunities created by digital media gave them a sense of personal empowerment by giving them the chance to quiz experts, to make political officials and companies accountable for their decisions or arguments.

To those of us who are aware and have the time to devote to it, the Internet gives us the opportunity to act upon something. Not everybody does it but you can communicate directly with those who launch the news and demand that they prove what they are saying and if you do it by e-mail you know it’s written. (Man, ACAG)

43The quality and political economy of Internet access also deem important, and even defining, for activists’ digital media practices. Access to the Internet either at work or at home and the speed of the connection were influential factors shaping the media practices of activists. The speed and cost of connections, not only among informants but also among people in general, shaped activists’ digital media practices. Text was preferable to images or videos. The use of images and videos was less significant and sporadic. Images and videos take more time to download and/or send than text, an important fact considering the varied quality and the high cost of the connections available. While the NGOs’ members had access to fast Internet connections at the office, members of the grassroots organisation had Internet access, of varying speed quality, and only at home. Often grassroots activists shared the connection with several neighbours in an informal arrangement that granted lower costs at the expense of speed. Only one of them had access to the organisation’s old computer installed in the organisation’s office, a room lent by the House of Culture in Gualeguaychú, part of the city’s municipality. The organisation’s e-mail account was organised via g-mail, from which, at that time, a maximum of 2000 e-mails could be sent per day. Slow connections and limited e-mail traffic played a role when one planned online mobilisations or the dissemination of information in general. When it came to mobilisation, other forms of communication (posters, car stickers, and face-to-face encounters) were also used to invite people to participate in the protest actions.

44The type of organisation, either an established NGO or a grassroots movement, influenced the structure, content and strategy of their of activists’ digital media practices. Communication roles were performed and organised in different ways. NGOs had established criteria and greater resources (people, time, money) for the communication activities, including the digital output. The grassroots organisation relied mainly on voluntary work, and on individual decisions rather than on centrally structured group criteria when it comes to their communication activities. Each of the groups had one or two people in charge of communication: a full-time worker in the case of REDES and ACAG (their only paid position) and a part-time worker at Guayubira. While the NGO activists considered communication with the outside a collaborative effort, which should be communicated via the spokesperson of the organisation, the ‘asamblea’ had a more flexible view. Grassroots activists could, via the Internet or by mobile phone, communicate individually with mainstream media and other connected individuals. Their communications did not have to be coordinated with the rest of the organisation.

45Another important factor was the age of the interviewed activists, which played a role in the kind of media practices that were perceived as appropriate and valuable for civic engagement activities. In a discussion of the new social movement for curbing climate change, for example, Castells notes: ‘Besides Indymedia, numerous hack labs, temporary or stable, populated the movement and used the superior technological savvy of the new generation to build and advantage in the communication battle against their elders in the mainstream media’ (Castells 2009, 344). In a more empirically based discussion of activists as interpretive communities, Rauch interviewed snowball-selected activists. She found that for the most part they were in their late teens and early twenties (Rauch 2007).

46The average age of the activists involved in communication tasks in this movement was 41, with the youngest being 25 and the oldest being 57. Moreover, in terms of age, they were quite representative of their respective organisations. In my fieldwork, I observed that people working in the NGOs and those involved in the organisation of the ACAG’s protest activities were around 40 years of age. Furthermore, the informants confirmed these observations during the interviews. Interestingly, the exception was the many young people who participated in the actual protests organised by the ‘asamblea’. In effect, informants confirmed that young people showed their engagement by participating in the mobilisations organised by the older activists. However, these young people were absent from the actual organisation of the protests, discussions and weekly meetings. Informants believed this to have had an effect on the ways in which the Internet was used by the ACAG.

I realise that this technological battle (referring to young people’s use of Facebook and Twitter), this technological tool, was misused by us. Maybe there is time still. We have had a ‘young assembly’ but we haven’t been able to use it in this sense. It’s an immense and terrific tool. (Man, ACAG)

47On the other hand, Guayubira and REDES informants defined their Internet and mobile phone practices in opposition to young people’s use of social media and in terms of civic participation styles. But contrary to ACAG informants, they did not perceive social media as an opportunity for furthering participation and agency among people. They considered Facebook a mere tool for distributing personal content and entertainment, and therefore underestimated the possibility of using Facebook for civic engagement. Traditional mobilisation patterns were still the norm, and the Uruguayan NGOs, more established and well trained in the arts of mobilisation in the countryside, simply did not see social media as an opportunity. They did not expect to reach the stakeholders they wished to influence, such as politicians and journalists, through social media, because at the time these were mainly perceived as a personal communicational arena used by young people, uninterested in environmental concerns or in politics in general.

From what I see of Facebook it is basically a way to transfer of personal information to public spaces. This has nothing to do with our activity, and it has nothing to do with anything substantial. It is a lot of people, knowing about other people, to what party they went, what they wore then, how much alcohol they drank, how many pictures they took, one million pictures. This is far from what Guayubira is. (Woman, Guayubira Group)

48Digital media grew in importance among activists during the years to come. Even though they had different perspectives, informants shared an instrumentalist conception of digital media practices, which they considered suitable primarily for one-way communication. They associated websites, newsletters, and e-mails with a form of information transfer taking place between them and others under more controlled and ‘serious’ forms. Social media was associated with young people and not related as much to traditional forms of civic engagement or modes of protest. It is worth noting that social media were becoming popular in 2008. However, this is insufficient to explain informants’ assessment. Rather, it illustrates how they understood their digital media practices in terms of different styles of civic engagement. Interviews with members of the grassroots organisation suggest that the relationship between civic engagement and digital media was in the process of becoming a more ‘social’ form of networking, while NGO members had a more traditional one-way view on their digital media practices.


49The relation between environmental movements and digital media in non-Western media systems, such as the Southern Cone, changes with the emergence of new informational circumstances that give citizens and civil society organisations greater access to digital media that enables them to reach fellow citizens often, while bypassing mainstream media. During this long-standing protest, a combination of digital media practices enabled the formulation of arguments on the activists’ terms and the exchange and dissemination of these among activists and other citizens and environmental organisations, both locally and globally. Although its organisation and dissemination were aided by the use of online platforms and networking, physical mobilisation was central to the protest. Despite the fact that these countries have the highest Internet use in Latin America, activists relied primerely on a well-tested and widely used form of mobilisation in the region: the blockade. This may be due to the fact that the majority of activists were middle-aged, and that some of them were well trained in traditional forms of activism.

50Overall, this case helps raise some theoretical points about digital media and protest in non-Western contexts. Firstly, environmental concerns may, in societies where the environment ranks low on political and media agendas, be formulated in political and economic rather than environmental terms. The formulation of environmental concerns in more familiar and successful discursive frames is an attempt to facilitate their acceptance among citizens and their inclusion in the mainstream media, which implies wider public awareness. When presenting demands or describing actions in their digital media output, all the organisations under study utilised political and economic, rather than environmental, lines of argumentation. The environmental frame was not the preferred way of presenting the protest discursively on activist websites. The activists’ attempts to make visible the environmental problems inherent to the pulp industry and forest monoculture, and to contribute to the expansion of public debate on the subject, were kept entirely within political and economic frames in their media output.

51Secondly, the structure of the organisation and contextual mobilisation traditions, as well as the age of the activists, play a significant role in determining how digital media are conceived and used, in particular in the case of protest practices that involve social media or other interactive online platforms. The more structured NGOs strove towards the creation of one-way, unique and coordinated content that represented the organisation. These organisations put limits on individual expressions of engagement, in particular those involving interactivity. Individualised and interactive forms of activism tend to flourish, this case suggests, within loosely knit organisations like grassroots movements rather than in highly structured organisations such as established environmental NGOs. The leaderless grassroots movement allowed more room for activists to engage in social media and interactive online platforms, individually and without consulting the organisation. They were positive about participation in social media and different interactive online platforms, although they rarely used them. Age was a defining factor here, as older activists did not feel comfortable engaging openly in social media. To them the social media were unknown terrain which they would enter into without the aide of younger, more knowledgeable activists. Rich mobilisation traditions and practices were enhanced by digital media, not substituted by them, even though Argentina and Uruguay have the best Internet and mobile phone access in Latin America.

52Thirdly, the relationship between activists’ online media and national news media is linked to the national authorities’ positioning on the matter in question, as this has implications for the online output of activists. Uruguayan NGOs did not have access to news media, as these echoed the voice of governmental authorities on the subject of pulp mills and forest monoculture. Instead, the NGOs strove to produce and disseminate information and arguments via digital media channels, this being the only way to reach fellow citizens. On the other hand, members of the grassroots organisation, who benefited from the Argentinean government’s positive attitude to the protest, had plenty of opportunities to express themselves in local and national media, mainly about the blockade. In other words, national media were perceived, both by NGOs and by grassroots activists, as the most powerful vehicle for increasing awareness about the protest because a wider range of people could be reached that way than through online, user-generated media. In the absence of mainstream media coverage, in the case of Uruguay, and with only event-related information, in the case of Argentina, the background and contextualising framing of the protest were made available mainly through online activist-generated content. Activists used political and economic arguments rather than environmental ones in their quest to gain public attention where they expected a concrete outcome.


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Virginia Melián (virginia.melian[at] is Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Latin American Studies at Stockholm University. Her research has focused on media and environmental movements in Latin America. Her overview of Swedish Research on Latin America will be published in the forthcoming Distant Gazes, edited by Fredrik Uggla.


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