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Teenage nation

April 9, 2010

Buenos Aires: “Because we are a developing country, every rich company from around the world thinks they can set up here

Even the dogs can read here

and pollute our waters, kill our fishes and ruin our land. And the truth is: they can,” says Daniel, a Buenos Aires university graduate, training in tourism.

Daniel is referring to a paper factory being built by the Finnish company Botnia in Uruguay just across the shared Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. This is the subject of an ongoing, bitter dispute between the two countries – Argentina claims the acids and other chemicals used in the bleaching process will destroy its ecosystems; Uruguay is delighted with its wealthy new investors. But Daniel could as easily be referring to the oil and gas companies, the copper and silver mines further south and west that are mostly owned by foreign companies.

Young Argentinians are environmentally educated and ecologically aware, and beginning to organise into citizen protest groups to construct legal cases against, for example, environmental degradation as a result of mining. The problem is, the president has a vested interest in certain mining concessions.

For all its European elegance, health provision and excellent literacy levels, Argentina is a developing country with one-third of the population living below the poverty line and agriculture providing the biggest contribution to GDP.

Next month, the world’s eighth largest country celebrates its bicentenary. In its short life Argentina has experienced dramatic swings of fortune, going from its early position as one of the richest countries in the world, based on its thriving wool and cattle trade, to a severe economic collapse that crippled the nation.

It’s fallen into an abyss of state sponsored murder, torture and horror in which tens of thousands were ‘disappeared’, the mothers and grandmothers of stolen children still campaign in the Plaza de Mayo every week. But it’s reinstated itself as a modern democracy, albeit with some corruption issues, under a popular president, Nestor Kirchner, and now his wife Christina.

Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts. The centre, a grid of towering high-rise blocks that leave the tiny pedestrian in permanent chilly shadow, while a stone’s throw away, the masses live in a sprawl of shanty housing, half-built brick and concrete open to the elements with no municipal services to speak of. The people are mainly of mixed European descent, reflecting the last two-hundred years’ migrations from Spain, Germany, Italy, Britain, Russia and elsewhere. Religious Jews and Catholic nuns pass each other on streets lined with designer shops and fronted by huddles of homeless. Per capita, Argentinians have more cosmetic procedures done than any other nation, and they are enthusiastic improvers of their minds too, with a booming psychoanalysis industry.

The city centre is organised into thematic streets. We walk down a string of uninterrupted jewellers on Libertad, of audio suppliers on Paranas, and then a street lined by purveyors of musical instruments whose wares sit enticingly polished, waiting for a pair of lips or skilful fingers to strum them into life.

The people here seem to survive on a diet of pizza and empanadas, meat and potatoes, and we order some miserable dishes including a greasy potato-chip omelette – yes, really, an omelette made from just eggs and chips. Perhaps part of the problem is that our Spanish is pretty poor, so ordering anything complicated is tricky. We’re going to take Spanish lessons in the next few weeks.

We meet up with a recent emigre, a friend from London, for drinks in the 19th-century Cafe Tortino. She loves Buenos Aires and it’s lovely to see her, but we only have a short time because we have tickets to a highly anticipated Tango show.

The show is disappointing. The dancers are proficient and technically excellent, but despite their tiny scraps of clothing, the show lacks passion.

We still have jetlag, so grab a takeaway pizza and go to bed before midnight – very unArgentinian.

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