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The Mists of Riachuelo

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El Caminito, the tourist trap of La Boca (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Newcomers to Buenos Aires, upon visiting the quaint neighbourhood of La Boca, will discover, alongside the picturesque shanties in El Caminito, the exquisite gourmet kitchen of Patagonia Sur and what appear to be spontaneous tango exhibitions, the unmistakeable smell of open drains, or what Harry Potter would describe as: “the sort of public toilet that no one ever seems to clean.”

Unfortunately as there is no troll to blame for the smell, people inevitably and accurately blame the Riachuelo river,  whose slimy surface and varied collection of floating trash no longer inspire the famed songs of nostalgia and passion, such as ‘The Mists of Riachuelo‘, but more often sounds of gagging and choking.

Immediate Causes of Pollution

The immediate causes of the pollution of the Matanza-Riachuelo watershed are subject of common knowledge and debate (from the Noria Bridge to the river’s mouth, the river is called Riachuelo; further upstream it’s called the Matanza).

There is the problem of human organic waste: hundreds of gallons of untreated sewage released into the river from city sewers and from provisional dwellings alongside the riverbank. There is the problem of industrial waste: one source claims that there are 15,000 industries that dump chemical and other industrial waste into the storm water system which flows directly into the river. And there is litter: thousands and thousands of pounds of trash, bagged and loose, are thrown into the river every year.

The question that then arises is: if the sources of the pollution are known, why isn’t someone doing something about it? The answer is somewhat complex, as can be seen by the conclusions arrived at by studies carried out by the University of Buenos Aires in the 1980s. According to these studies those to blame for the current situation of the watershed are as follows:

  • The municipalities affected by the waterway who are unable to carry out actions for the river’s improvement;
  • The port, which upon cessation of activities, left a garbage dump of wrecked ships, which make water circulation impossible. In addition, the subsequent cessation of activities linked to the port left an industrial vacuum in the area;
  • The authorities who are unable to resolve the problem of flooding neither technically nor financially, which results in a polarization of the project with unrealistic expectations (such as raising the land level of the whole neighbourhood);
  • The public services organizations which await the raising of the land level and thus do not renew obsolete infrastructure;
  • The Urban Planning Code which prohibits the construction of residences because the neighbourhood is in an industrial zone (although the Law for Industrial Promotion #21.608, prohibits the localization of industry there);
  • And the home owners who before the impossibility of obtaining greater rents and financial returns due to the general deterioration of the zone, do not invest in the concept of improvement.”

Due to the apparent contradictions inherent in this list, a short explanation of Buenos Aires and its relationship to its surrounding rivers is needed in order to understand the situation more fully.

Aerial view of the Riachuelo (Photo: Roger Schultz)

Calling the Riachuelo and the Río de la Plata ‘rivers’ is a bit of a misnomer; in reality, the whole area is an estuary, where freshwater meets the ocean, and is susceptible to ocean phenomena such as tides and waves, as well as river phenomena such as the flow of sedimentation. In addition, the whole area tends to flood during flash floods or south-easterly winds. The immense size of the flood plain and the height of the bluffs give testimony to the strength and extent of the floodwaters. As the surrounding land on the Argentine bank is flat, and the soil is a mixture of limestone and clay, which quickly becomes saturated, the waters once they rise are slow to recede, having little or no slope. These facts are important to remember in connection with pollution and attempts to clean the same.

A Brief History of a City

Monument to Pedro de Mendoza, founder of Buenos Aires in Parque Lezama (Photo: Sam Kelly)

Reliable historical sources contend that Pedro de Mendoza, the ‘Forerunner’, most probably founded the first Buenos Aires in 1536, within the flood plain of the Riachuelo, or the area known today as La Boca, the ‘River’s Mouth’ and not in the Parque Lezama where his monument is now located. In the sixteenth century, the site would have been a vast marshland, covered with reeds, willows, and grasses, in which the Riachuelo meandered calmly and slowly, flanked by a steep bluff, some 100 yards to the right (looking upstream).

After settlers abandoned the first Buenos Aires after a combination of attacks by indigenous peoples, flooding and subsequent starvation, in 1580 Juan de Garay returned to the site, advantageous from a maritime and trading point of view, and founded the second Buenos Aires, this time on top of the firm plateau or bluff which overlooks the flood plains. In keeping with the Ordinances for Population of the period, the Spanish Conquistadors were forbidden to occupy lowlands precisely because they tended to flood and were considered insalubrious. So the limits of Garay’s new city were determined by the bluffs to the south (more or less the present day street of Defensa/25 de Mayo) and east (present day Av. Santa Fe), and the Maldonado river to the north (present day Av. Juan B. Justo). In other words the lowlands in the flood plain of the River Plate and the Riachuelo were deliberately left uninhabited. Today these areas comprise some of the priciest high-end real estate in Buenos Aires, including Puerto Madero, Palermo Viejo and Palermo Chico, as well as the traditionally poor: La Boca, Barracas, and Pompeya.

Settling down…hill

Le Corbusier’s famous quip about Buenos Aires having ‘its back to the river’, unlike most European cities that boast coastal walkways and highways, showed a lack of understanding of the Bonaerense’s relationship to the estuary. On the one hand life in Buenos Aires depended on the commercial activity as a port, but on the other hand, histories of meteorological events show that the city’s lowlands historically flood every two to 15 years, sometimes with disastrous results. Having to brace against wild south-easterly storms and flash floods was not the only worry: the ‘bajos’ or ‘lowlands’ downhill of the main plateau were incommunicable bogs, infested with insects and other animals. Although ignorant of the role that vectors play in disease transmission, many doctors in 19th century Buenos Aires suspected that the unhealthy nature of the swamps downhill were responsible for the plague that wiped out 60% of the city’s population in 1871. Back then traders were more interested in a cow’s hide than in its meat, and alongside the banks of the Matanza-Riachuelo, tanneries sprung up where cattle were slaughtered, most of its flesh and blood thrown into the river, and then the hide tanned with acid, also drained into the river. This practice ended with the plague of 1871, although no one could prove that the presence of so many viscera in the water aided and abetted the flourishing of the yellow fever epidemic. As a footnote to this anecdote, once the tanneries stopped this practice, the river actually recovered its natural purity.

Nonetheless, the Riachuelo’s role as a natural harbour was more important than the fear of being flooded or contracting yellow fever. The growing port activity during the latter half of the 19th century within the Riachuelo watershed led to other related commercial activities: ship provision supply houses, dock loaders, tow barges, warehouses, shipyards, and of course houses, lodgings, eateries, dance halls, bars, etc. The types of buildings that survive from this period reflect a healthy respect for the river and its ability to wipe out everything in its path. In general the buildings were built on stilts out of lightweight durable tin or zinc which could be moved if necessary out of harm’s way, or easily rebuilt with materials at hand. This did not signify that construction in the lowlands was permitted; on the contrary, the area was occupied illegally, and against the planning codes that had been in place since the 16th century, for the good of the people.

In 1888, the mayor of Buenos Aires, Antonio F. Crespo gave permission for all the lowlands surrounding Buenos Aires proper to be dredged, filled and developed, and in doing so, exposed city dwellers to other more complex problems than the evident ones from flooding. Lower Belgrano, for example, was filled in with the garbage collected from the rest of the city, and during its development was source of many an unpleasant smell and accompanying complaints from citizens. From this point on, extensive speculation for real estate development took care of ‘selling’ inhabitants the idea that the lowlands had suddenly become desirable property.

Floods in Lomas de Zamora just south of Buenos Aires in 2008. Thousands of people and their shanty homes were flooded. (Photo: Olmo Calvo Rodríguez (www.sub.coop))

Around the same period, immigrants started pouring into the country, pulled by the promise of work and the possibility of improving their lot. The settled inhabitants of Buenos Aires left the lowlands or ‘bajos’ for the ever increasing immigrant population, impoverished and dependant upon the employment generated by the proximity of the port. These immigrants endured the frequent flooding of the rivers in their efforts to gain a firm economic foothold in Argentina. In other words, La Boca was arguably the first villa de emergencia (emergency community) in the history of Argentina. The immigrants were successful on the whole, and although the frequent flooding of the river often meant that La Boca was cut off from the rest of the city on the plateau, this contributed to a feeling of belonging and close-knit union among the inhabitants of the area. Important citizens such as artist Quinquela Martin, proud of their roots in La Boca, are responsible for the modern landscape: El Caminito is a 3D painting designed by Martin himself to honour the humble origins and tenacity of the locals.

But, after a while, the new citizens began to demand services such as street pavement, sidewalks, running water, and sewers. In 1905, the sewage infrastructure was finished, and the port activity in Riachuelo had been transferred to Puerto Nuevo. There were now first and sometimes second generation Argentines demanding civil services, but flooding was still a problem. A traveller to the city in 1910 describes how to get from La Boca to Palermo, Belgrano and Nunez: “One had to move by horse or by canoe. The rivers and creeks were overflowing and lower Belgrano was completely flooded.”

How to pollute a river without really trying

From 1930 to 1976, the city embarked on a series of public works which were to ‘dominate’ the river itself. The plan was to straighten and drag the river, in order to help the river flow out into the Río de la Plata faster, and thus alleviate the slow recession of the floodwaters. What was the effect? The lands surrounding the Riachuelo on either bank increased in value, and commenced to be seriously developed and occupied. Once the lands were occupied, in some cases by more provisional dwellings without proper infrastructure and no services, and in others by industries and businesses, all the waste produced by both humans and industries was dumped straight into the river. According to Antonio Elio Brailovsky, political economist and spokesman for Argentine ecology: “The works produced great changes in the water’s flow, but very few in the flood plain. In other words, what were before uninhabited floodlands became inhabited floodlands. After four centuries from the city’s founding, authorities had to pay attention to the frequency of the river’s flooding. As with all tardy approaches, their attention span wasn’t always long enough.”

Heap full of rusted cars and garbage along the Riachuelo (Photo: Olmo Calvo Rodríguez (www.sub.coop))

What we know as Riachuelo today is the result of man’s influence: the river has been dragged, widened, straightened, embanked, dredged, and in some areas, encased in tubing. The towpaths have been paved with tar and asphalt, increasing their impermeability and thus the stormwater run-off into the river; the embankment alongside the Boca riverbank causes flooding on the opposing lowly rive gauche. The whole floodplain has become an urban jungle: there are dwellings that overlook the river itself and piles of trash taller than the homes beside them. Nonetheless, the technological domination of the river still isn’t enough to control the flooding. The system of underground pipes that carry the city’s sewage and stormwater effluents, was built during the end of the 19th century, when precipitation was established at 865mm/year. Today, the city’s population far exceeds the capacity of its sewers and in addition, precipitation is roughly double the amount calculated when the infrastructure was built, that is, 1600mm/year for the years 2001-2002. In other words, the city is again exposed to the danger of flooding because its piping cannot possibly contain what it must in order to avoid flooding during a sudden rainstorm. No amount of infrastructure will increase the slope of the riverbed, and straightening the river’s curves, instead of increasing the flow of water, has aggravated its stagnation. In fact, it would be hard to define the Riachuelo as a river today given the probability of its negative slope in relation to the Río de la Plata’s riverbed, which would convert it to a closed circuit. This would explain the water’s stagnation and apparent stillness; in other words, the Riachuelo has been converted into a true backwater, although this has not been established as no comprehensive hydrological study has been carried out to date.

In reality, the attempts to create urban infrastructure and to control the flooding of the area are what have ultimately polluted and complicated the Riachuelo flow. Greenpeace affirms that the heavy metal content and toxicity of the water and riverbed far exceed acceptable levels, although there are no data which report all the pollutants nor to what degree do they contaminate. In other words, man in his hurry to dominate nature here and provide himself with a worthy dwelling place, forgot about the river itself, and in doing so has made the area surrounding it uninhabitable (which arguably it always was), but is unwilling to move because of his investment in the zone. The still, shallow waters are filthy, choked with litter, and faecal material; the whole place is rank with death and slime. One neighbour reports: “I try to avoid contact with the river because they say that it’ll burn your skin because of its acid content.” Another neighbour declares: “I put up a wire fence, because I don’t want my children to touch the water.”

No Man’s River

Riachuelo completely covered by garbage (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Today, the errors of the past are painfully evident. Finger-pointing, the preferred international sport of politicians, is an activity at which local bureaucrats are adept. While the right bank (looking upstream) is under the municipal authority of the city of Buenos Aires, the left bank is under provincial jurisdiction, and the waterway itself is federal property. All this contributes to complicating the poor river even more, as no one, not even the inhabitants of the area, comprehends the complex history of the waterway and how it became polluted, and thus no one assumes full responsibility for remedying the situation. Most inhabitants in the area assume the problem of pollution will be solved by removing the sources of industrial waste, and albeit this would be an important step, eliminating industrial waste will not turn the Riachuelo overnight into a clean river.

None of the present generation of policy and decision-makers in Argentina can remember a ‘clean’ Riachuelo, which has become a sort of banner under which to rally votes. For over fifty years, each administration in turn has debated how best to clean the river, without taking into account the nature of the ecosystem itself. Younger generations are more cynical, distrusting authorities and doubting that Riachuelo ever was clean, nor that it ever will be.

From Pollution to Politics

The recent history of policies to clean the Riachuelo reads like bad pulp fiction.  Maria Julia Alsogaray, Environmental Secretary for the Menem administration, claimed that she would clean the river in one thousand days, and go swimming in the river.

Artist Garcia Uriburu and Greenpeace added non-toxic florescence to the Riachuelo to demonstrate the river's pollution. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

In 1997, the Interamerican Development Bank loaned US$250m to improve the situation of the watershed. Only 3% of that sum was applied to the river; 77% went to “consultants’” fees. Now, 14 years, US$2.5 million worth of illegal enrichment, and a couple of jail sentences later, the river is still not clean, although Alsogaray herself is punished.

Romina Picolotti, holding the same office in the year 2006, declared that she would drink a glass of water collected from the soon-to-be-cleaned Riachuelo.

A lot of water, most of it filthy, has passed under the Avellaneda Bridge since then, and the toast has yet to be made. Like Alsogaray, Picolotti is being tried for misappropriation of funds. Given the nature of the pollution in the Riachuelo, drinking that glass of water might be a better punishment than any jail term.

The Mendoza Case

In 2006, 17 inhabitants of La Boca, Barracas, and other areas sued the federal government and several industries for damages to health caused by the environmental pollution in the Riachuelo watershed. This case, called the ‘Mendoza Case’ (for the surname of the first in the list of the defendants), was upheld by the Supreme Court in July 2008, in a heretofore unprecedented ruling, whereby the court determined the responsibility of the federal government, the city of Buenos Aires and the province of Buenos Aires separately for the ‘prevention and reparation of Environmental Damages existing in the Watershed.”

Greenpeace's banner across the Avellaneda Bridge across the Riachuelo in La Boca

The ruling also set up an authority by which the improvements and cleaning works would be carried out, as well as the timeframe in which these would be done. This authority, called the Authority for the Matanza-Riachuelo Watershed (ACUMAR), would function as a unifying entity for the responsible parties (city, province and nation), thus overruling the bureaucratic paralysis of the past and enabling the organism to enforce the court’s decision by fining offending parties in the case of their failure to act, or risk being fined itself. On 10th August 2010, based on the Supreme Court ruling, the head of ACUMAR, Dr. Homero Bibiloni, was fined $4000/day for not fulfilling the “immediate and effective fulfilment of the sentence”. Under the ruling, the court can fine “all functionaries involved and responsible for the fulfilment of the sentence”.

Also unprecedented was the court’s decision to involve NGOs that were active in the case in the ruling: Greenpeace, the Environmental and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELs), the Neighbourhood Association of La Boca, as well as the federal Public Defender’s Office. These groups have the allied role of patrolling the river and surrounding areas for pollution, advising ACUMAR as to the presence of offending actions and/or parties. It is hoped that the participation of third-party groups and citizens will measurably aid the grave situation in the Matanza-Riachuelo watershed today.

The Good News

In the 31 months since the historic ruling of the ‘Mendoza Case’ rocked the unhealthy waters of the Riachuelo-Matanza river as well as the equally turbulent political history surrounding it, real improvements for the river and its environs have been carried out.

A water fork lift cleans out garbage in the Riachuelo. (Photo: Patricia Di Filippo)

Ground crews comb both riverbanks cutting grass, pruning and planting trees, and collecting garbage. There are several river forklifts which paddle into floating breakwaters where the trash accumulates, scoop it up and transport it to the left bank and dump them into waiting garbage receptacles. Businesses have moved back from the riverside to free the towpaths, and families that for decades have lived in shanties that overlook the river are being relocated in order to free the riverbank for the Left Bank Highway. Car wrecks and old electro-domestic articles which lined the banks for decades have been removed.

And the Vuelta de Rocha, the famous curve in the Riachuelo in front of El Caminito, home of the tango, which became a ship’s graveyard after the abandonment of the port, now only boasts three wrecks, which are already earmarked for the scrap heap, and will be gone this year.

The Bad News

The bad news is that it probably won’t get any better than this in the near future. There is no practical plan of action with well-defined phases to clean the Riachuelo, other than the Integral Plan for Environmental Improvement (PISA) which constitutes more of a guideline than concrete steps.

The court has determined that the Matanza-Riachuelo is a ‘Use 4’ waterway, all along its course, which means that the river can be looked at, and nothing else; as long as the water is visually and aromatically decent, the authorities will let it be. But the river could receive a different categorization for the upper and middle sections of the watershed, where pollution from industry and improvised housing is less, and thus greater aid in preventing further pollution.

Industrial pipes dumping waste directly into river. This can only be seen when water is low. (Photo: Patricia Di Filippo)

In addition, the chemical waste from industries has turned into a political stalemate because of the potentially flammable effects this could have. In other words, the authorities could fine polluting industries or close them down indefinitely, but this could have a boomerang effect in that the industries might then have to lay off workers and then those workers would blame the responsible administration for their unemployment.

On 16th March 2011, during a report to the nation as to the advancement of the improvement of the Matanza-Riachuelo river, the national Public Defender’s office declared that “all of the time limits are unfulfilled (for the cleaning), given that most of the programmes are recent, which implies that achievements to date are useless.” During the same report, Greenpeace declared that: “the absence of an overall plan to control industries in order to reduce or eliminate the dumping of industrial waste means…the Riachuelo will never be cleaned.”

Alfredo Alberti, head of the Neighbourhood Association of La Boca attributes this to a lack of “authority and interest on behalf of ACUMAR. We are witnesses to a broken dialogue between the participating organizations (which results in) a frozen, consolidated, and deteriorated situation where no improvements can be seen.”

In 2009, Argentina received US$840m from the World Bank in order to heal the Riachuelo. While this might seem a considerable sum, it all depends on how the money is spent. If it is used for alternative housing in order to relocate the improvised dwellings alongside the river, it will only be a drop in the bucket. If it is used to pay the fines imposed by the court on local politicians, (although these seem to have been postponed), the river will continue its stinking way. If it is used for office furniture and supplies such as those described by ACUMAR tenders, then surely enough will be left over to clean the river, right? According to the World Bank, the US$840m are to be spent on the first part of PISA, that is for public works that provide for running water and a sewer system, as well as ‘pollution reduction’, which, it is hoped, will directly benefit the inhabitants of the area. In addition, industries that adopt ‘green’ mechanisms for waste control and deposits will receive “non-refundable supports” for the transformation of their production systems.

And yet none of these efforts and well-wishing seek to get to the heart of the problem, which is why the river is polluted in the first place.

Behind the Mists

Perhaps it is difficult for the outsider to comprehend: the word ‘prosperity’ has not formed part of the Argentine lexicon for more than half a century; not so long ago, 2001 to be exact, people were worried about their next meal; before that, they were worried about how to avoid being sent to a senseless death in the Falklands, or how to protect loved ones from being kidnapped and ‘disappearing” during the 1970’s.

Mists of Riachuelo (Photo: Carolina Hernando on behalf of WWF Climate)

It is hard to worry about water purity when your life is in danger, when your children are hungry, when you are striving to survive, and only just barely making it. The unplanned settlement of La Boca and the polluted state of the Riachuelo are testimony to these realities that have marked all areas of society in Argentina and continue to do so today.

We can shake our heads and say ‘what a shame’, but until the rampant social problems arising from unemployment, inadequate cultural immersion from rapid immigration, poverty, injustice, lack of law enforcement, inept inspection processes and just plain indifference are addressed, no changes can be expected. And yet, in spite of all these factors, more than one generation of Argentines have proudly progressed from the state of their penniless, uneducated, immigrant parents to hard-working, literate, economically solvent and law-abiding citizens. Who’s to say that the present generation of lawmakers might be the first to learn from the past and turn the situation around?

Steps to a clean river

There is a tendency in the world post-industrial revolution to believe that technology can solve all of man’s problems. The first typical question is where to buy the technology, not whether it exists or not. The second question is where to get the money to buy the technology. In general, people in today’s world are not interested in changing their behaviour in order to bring about changes; they want a magic wand to wave, or in its absence, a decent amount of statistics and technology. Actions directed towards the cleaning of the Riachuelo have been up until now of this tendency, seeking a remedy through technology instead of recognizing and changing the underlying problems which give rise to the situation, and thus achieving a definitive solution.

One definitive solution to the complex situation of the Riachuelo would be to totally evacuate the flood plain, thus ending the immediate causes of the pollution, and create a park, which would return the area to its natural role as regulator as flood plain for the surrounding rivers. The absence of human inhabitants would remove the necessity of controlling the water levels, and the potentially catastrophic risks involved therein. The Riachuelo could be conceived as a navigable canal within the park, for purposes of tourism and water sports, and a historical landmark raised in honour of the failed first founding of Buenos Aires. Flooding would no longer be an issue because the area would be uninhabited, and the ecosystem could achieve a semblance of its original equilibrium, and return to emptying into the Río de la Plata. The immediate causes for the pollution – human and industrial – would be mitigated.

Garbage along the riverbank (Photo: Olmo Calvo Rodríguez (www.sub.coop))

Unfortunately, a definitive solution such as this one is highly unlikely. Too many people live in the area, and too many invested interests are unwilling to sacrifice their potential returns for real estate investment to the overall well-being of the ecosystem in which they live. In other words, those people who have invested in real estate in the lowlands in and around Buenos Aires have become accomplices to the real estate developers who have duped them into believing that their property is worth the price they paid for it. The only way to maintain property values then is to stay put, and demand even more technological solutions for natural problems.

Another “solution”, a project to ‘improve’ property values in the Riachuelo flood plain, similar to the one enacted around the once abandoned, rat-infested warehouses of what is now ‘ritzy’ Puerto Madero, does not address the underlying problems that arise from occupying the flood plain of a river, and a river that is liable to huge increases in its water levels. Quite fittingly or perhaps ominously, the Coast Guard functions as the police force for Puerto Madero. Similar plans, from Costanera Sur to Vicente Lopez, from lower San Isidro to lower San Fernando and Tigre, and including all of the country clubs in and around Nordelta cater to the vicious circle of ‘taking’ land from the river, and converting marshland into high end real estate, despite the fact that all of these areas are below the limit of 5 metres above sea level, as defined by the national Civil Defense league as the risk area for flooding for Metropolitan Buenos Aires.   Perhaps this ‘solution’ will be seen for what it is, a big, profitable business, and what’s left of the ecosystem will be left in peace.

In Conclusion

The story of the polluting of the Riachuelo occurs against a dramatic backdrop, the silent, serpentine river itself, where the presence of man has exacerbated and arguably ruined nature’s delicate equilibrium. So how can you help clean up the Riachuelo-Matanza watershed?

1.  Set a good example; don’t litter in the streets or waterways.

2.  Pick up litter in river and on banks. Sponsor a litterbug awareness movement in your area/school/club. Throw a fundraising party.

3. Sign up for campaigns that educate and monitor the situation. Be informed.

Many people come to Buenos Aires and wish to buy a home or invest in the housing market here. A word of advice: nature has a way of asserting herself, and is not easily dominated, as can be seen by recent events in Japan. Do not buy real estate located in the natural flood plains in or around Buenos Aires. Play it safe, and invest in the ‘altos’.

The information for this article is derived from the following sources:
-'Buenos Aires, ciudad inundable' (Buenos Aires, city of floods) by Antonio Elio Brailovsky. 2010.
-'Buenos Aires Tiene Historia' (Buenos Aires has history) by Gabriel Di Meglio et al. 2008.
-'Cuando murio Buenos Aires' (When Buenos Aires died) by Miguel Angel Scenna. 2009.
-Many thanks to the Greenpeace team for the boat tour of the Riachuelo river.
-FARN www.farn.org.ar
-Cels www.cels.org.ar
-ACUMAR www.acumar.gov.ar

This post was written by:

- who has written 1989 posts on The Argentina Independent.


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