Argentina: “A Casino Is Not Progress”

Marcela Valente

HAVANA TIMES, Sep 18 (IPS) — A small fishing community in the northern Argentine province of Chaco is pressing for a sustainable development program to preserve their simple way of life and the natural habitat, rather than a mega-investment project that would draw upscale tourism instead of the people who now come to seek peace and quiet on the weekends.

The people of San Pedro Pescador, located across the Paraná River from the city of Corrientes, have protested the plan for a casino, and are calling instead for implementation of a program designed by architecture students and professors at the National University of the Northeast.

“A casino is not progress,”  Walter Barrios, head of the neighborhood committee in this modest community of around 2,000 people on the banks of the Paraná river in a wetlands area rich in biodiversity, told IPS.

Although Chaco is one of Argentina’s poorest provinces, fishing communities on the banks of the Paraná — which starts in southern Brazil, forms part of the border between Paraguay and Argentina, and runs south through northeastern Argentina before flowing into the Río de la Plata (River Plate) estuary — manage to achieve food security by means of small-scale fishing.

Barrios, who is also a member of the Chaco Fishers Association, sees the plans for a casino as just the start of a major wave of real estate investment. “The thing is, this is a paradise, for its landscape, nature, and wetlands, and they don’t want the poor to live in such a beautiful place,” he said.

The community, he added, prefers the project focusing on urban planning, tourism, recreational activities and production and job opportunities for local people that was designed by the university students and professors. But although the provincial legislature gave its consent to the project, the initiative has no sources of financing.

The plan to build a casino, which has been the target of protests in San Pedro Pescador, belongs to the Chaco Lottery, a provincial agency whose purposes include the raising of funds for development in public health, social assistance and support for small businesses.

This year, the Chaco Lottery put out a call for bids from private companies to build a casino, auditorium, cinema, restaurant, pastry shop and car park for 400 vehicles in this small riverbank community. The project was presented as “progress” for the area.

As a bargaining chip, the Lottery authorities promised to meet the local community’s longstanding demands for a decent access road to the neighborhood, dikes to protect the area when the river floods its banks, and land titles for local residents who have lived here for decades but have no deeds.

“We’ll lose our way of life”

“The problem is that we don’t in the least like such an over-the-top structure being built next to a humble neighborhood like ours,” Barrios said. “We’re going to lose our way of life, our culture, and the peace and happiness that we have found living here.”

The community leader said the project would not even bring good jobs for local residents, although the director of the Lottery, Daniel Pascual, promised employment for around 40 people.

At an informal meeting this month with local residents, Pascual told the community that no one would lose their home. He said that on the contrary, they would be given assistance in obtaining title deeds.

Local residents, especially the women, expressed fears for the safety of their daughters and sons when visitors start flowing en masse to the casino and other attractions, and asked why a casino was being built without taking into account the wishes of the local community.

Pascual argued that local people had a “mistaken notion” that gambling was associated with prostitution, and told them that “in time” they would come to realize that the casino “won’t bother the community in the least.”

But the local residents prefer the development project designed by the National University of the Northeast, which includes local residents and has a focus on sustainable development. “It’s a big dream, but we could make it happen,” Barrios said.

The university plan would create an aquarium with 200 native species from the Paraná River, centers for studying biology, civic issues and health, and homes on stilts for residents in low-lying flood-prone areas.

It would also stock the river with native species of fish, a plan that had government support but was abandoned.

The project would also include the construction of a system of walkways along the riverbanks, an aviary, and a beer patio where visitors would be able to enjoy dishes made with fresh fish from the river, shops selling handicrafts and fish preserves, and simple bungalows for tourists drawn by the natural beauty of the place.

Ramón Vargas of the Fundación Encuentro por la Vida gave IPS details of the project that the university drew up on the basis of concerns that local residents expressed to environmental groups like his.

“It wouldn’t be a VIP development, but something modest that respects the unique character of the neighborhood,” he said. The disadvantage, he added, is that it would require state financing, “and there is currently no interest at that level in supporting this kind of development.”

“We’re looking at two opposing models here: on one hand sustainable development, and on the other — which lies behind the Chaco Lottery project — an interest in selling land for condominiums with private marinas that would allow anyone who could afford it to take over the landscape, the river and the riverbanks,” he said.

Vargas said 1,500 people or more currently come to San Pedro Pescador on the weekends to fish and sample local food along the river.

“But they want to sweep all that aside to create a typical Miami-style, or actually Nordelta-style, landscape,” said the activist, referring to the urban development project in the Tigre delta where the Paraná runs into the Río de la Plata.

Barrios said the local residents are being “extorted” with promises to meet demands like the construction of a road and flood protection barriers, and the granting of land titles. But, he added, no one really believes the Lottery project will actually make these dreams come true.