Julian Portilla (with Gachi Tapia)

Mediator and Facilitator for Fundación Cambio Democrático, Buenos Aires, Argentina, a Member of Partners for Democratic Change International

Topics: leadership, language, mediation

Interviewed by Guy Burgess — 2004

Listen to Full Interview

Q: Well this is Guy Burgess and today we're please to have two representatives for Partners for Democratic Change in Argentina, Julian Portilla and Gachi Tapia. I wondered if maybe you could start with Gachi first, describing a little bit about your organization and the kind of work that you do.

GT: Well, in some ways we share with Partners network main mission, which is strengthening democracy through developing methodologies and conflict and change management. We focus, we especially focus on policy making in public and social conflict and so we're trying to develop these skills and methodologies in which we can put people together in a participatory way to try to make them get to some outcomes or maybe some resolving some problems of transforming their problems through participation and collaboration so we mainly convene this ??? when we are requested to intervene and decide which can be the better tool or the better process in order to help them - and then you can say something else in English because it would be easier for you...

JP: In terms of the mission and the basic work, I think that's about it. It's sort of public conflict resolution stuff that I don't think is that different from the goals of the same practice in this country. Maybe the details are different.

GT: Maybe the details are different, and maybe we're using some other words which we are convinced are related with the kind of work we do, which is mainly social change and development. And this is something we really get to know when we were working and it was that this methodologies were not enough to help people really solve their main structural conflicts but on the other side, organizations working on development doing a lot of thing from that approach, bringing money, were also not enough in order to make this money work. Because they were not really focused on how money and change were bringing conflicts to the communities. So we're trying to link these two fields, you know, and we are trying to focus on a conflict sensitive approach when dealing with development programs and we also use this word, I don't know in English if it's called good governance, maybe good governance? So we try to use the language in a way in which we can pursue our mission. And sometimes conflict resolution is not the best language. I am a lawyer, I used to work as a mediator for many, many years before and we usually don't use mediation for the kind of work we do. Despite the main philosophy is the same one that sometimes people fighting and advocating for change, they really don't want to come to a mediation. They really feel that's something threatening and so we don't have to use the word mediation. We could use some other language in which they would feel confident in order to have a safe space so they can deal with their differences. So we are using sometimes a collaborative process or a dialogue process or whatever.

JP: And I think the governance piece is an interesting part of working down there; I have very little experience in this country, so I don't have anything to compare it to. But in Latin America there are a lot of weak states and they tend to - small, or medium-sized conflicts tend to paralyze local government to such a degree that they either have to wait it out or sit in a stalemate for a while until someone gets tired. It could be years, and things, sometimes, might never move forward. So one of the things we focus on is trying to increase the capability of local government to have participatory decision-making processes, so they can actually make progress on the big local issues that affect them.

GT: Anyway, there are a lot of organizations working on citizen participation. They don't necessarily have the same approach that we have, but for us it's very useful to come from this language of participation and bring this kind of new methodologies. Because usually, as Julian pointed out, our governors are very weak, and sometimes they use this participation in order to bring more prestige to... but they really don't believe in consensus decision making. So there's a lot of work to do there in order to help people and prepare them to talk in a different way, to bring some capacity to build consensus, and mainly to deal with some tensions, because it's not the same to decide some specific topic to the community, then working with this high, violent context in which we intervene that brings together the topics of conservation, social injustice, land distribution, democracy, corruption, which you know, is all there. I think in some way the kinds of cases we have in a very small way are... the very small of the global main topics, because all the topics are, indeed, in this context. This is about development, this is about social injustice, this is about violence, this is about lack of democratic institute, lack of transparency, so these methodologies are bringing out this transparency to public policies, but they are also helping people to understand their rights. And there is a lot of challenge in being really equalizers in this kind of process because there's a lot of imbalance of power involved, so there's not a lot of work you can do with just one or two persons. In a lot of roles, you have to be sure they have to be working there in order to make the process be constructively transformative.

Q: Could you tell us a little about one of your more interesting cases and how you've approached it?

JP: Sure, I think one of the most interesting cases we're working on now is a case in Iguazu, Misiones, which is the very northeastern province of Argentina and we're working on a land occupation conflict there, which, depending on where you're standing, is an environmental conflict, is a political conflict, is a social conflict, you know, if you ask the [Spanish word] it's got nothing to do with environmental conflict, if you ask the national park service, it's very much an environmental conflict and if you are a political scientist, like me or some of my collegues, it's very much a political conflict. So there's a large piece of land just south of the Iguazu, and Iguazu is trapped on two sides by rivers and on the third side by the national park and on it's fourth side there is a piece of land about 2,000 hectares in area and Iguazu is full and it has to grow, and it can only grow down into this 2,000 hectors. And they've had this land for seven or eight years and generally what has happened is that political "friends" get nice pieces of land in this 2,000 hectares extra-officially. In other words, the mayor or the head of the town council might say, here's a nice spot, why don't you go ahead and take it and it usually has to do with political favors in the end, and so after awhile, the housing demand in Iguazu grows and people are trying to get into the two thousand hectares and there is a plan developing but it's never implemented from the part of the municipality, and the bishop one day stands up in the middle of town and says, "You all should go occupy this land," speaking to poorer people, "because if you don't go occupy it now, the mayor is going to give it away to all of his friends. So, why don't you go occupy the 2,000 hectares?" And so people do, and it becomes this tremendous occupation and the 2,000 hectares, which is the only plot of land in which Iguazu can grow, is eventually taken over by squatters.

GT: And it's also a part of this international green corridor. So that's why, from a conservation perspective, it's also a very strategic place.

JP: It's a piece of what they call [Spanish] which means jungle of the [Spanish].

GT: Interior Atlantic forest.

JP: That's right, that's what it's called. Interior Atlantic forest. And it's incredibly bio-diverse and it connects these different tracts of protected land in Paraguay and in Argentina. And there's two sections. One is an urban section which is a typical Latin American urban section where poor people go and basically set up shop in ten by maybe 30 meter lots. 15x40 sometimes. And they setup and it looks fairly chaotic, although there is a certain amount of local organization that goes on, so when you're walking through these neighborhoods it looks like there's houses just anywhere. But when a surveyor comes and actually starts cutting the land in to little plots, it turns out these people are fairly self-organized into these 10x30 or 15x30 plots of land, they just have their houses on different points. So there's a certain amount of organization that goes on organically and there are a certain amount of rules they establish and norms between them. So there's the urban section and then there's the rural section. And in the urban section there may be close to - I don't know - three or four thousand people. And in the rural section which is the bulk of the 2,000 hectares - 1200 hectares or so - is occupied by less than 1,000 people. But they call themselves rural workers and they have these three hectare plots of land and they clear-cut their little land and they burn the piece that they clear-cut, and then they make it suitable for agriculture - for a few years anyway, and so the municipality wants their land back and they sue several of the squatters individually to get it back. The squatters collectively sue the municipality because they are worried...

GT: Well, they are really lack of power. They have a very strong, well they used to have, a very strong leader. Very negative one from our prespective that was in some way taking them to all this confrontation and was getting money to pay lawyers. Because actually he run for mayor too and he lost. So this is very interesting in terms of how this is a conflict in which politicians in our undeveloped country are using the very poor people when they go to elections. I don't know what would have happened if he really wins election.

JP: It would have been very interesting. The reason he - he lost but by very little, and the reason he had so many votes is because he - this is the gentleman who took second place in the mayor's race, the way he got so many votes was by giving out pieces of land that did not belong to him to squatters. So the bishop said, go take over the land, and the sort of very concrete mechanism for people to go and occupy was that this guy would go around writing little slips of paper saying, ... "this land is yours..."

GT: Requesting for money...

JP: "This plot is yours after you vote for me and get all your friends to vote for me. If I become mayor I will give you the title to this land." So he did that left, right, and center and basically populated the 2,000 hectares with this sort of crony-istic network what we call [Spanish word]. And he got a lot of votes. And he also got a lot of votes for the provincial government, cause he was running on the provincial ticket, whereas the guy who won was running on a slightly different ticket. Then you have a situation in which, despite the fact that there's incredible amounts of deforestation going on and an illegal occupation in terms of the laws that are on the books, the provincial government has a man on the inside, the second-place finisher, who they are supporting with their political capital and occasionally their financial capital and in fact he won himself a post in the provincial government - a small post but symbolic because that way the local [Spanish] - the local squatters -- would see him as an arm of the provincial government. The meantime, the municipal government is broke and is at odds with the provincial government and is very at odds with the individual who took second in the mayor's race. Talk about a divisive election. That was extremely divisive.

GT: Democracy is not about a collaboration. At all. That's our big deal. In terms of our work, we were looking to these land occupation conflicts. We were really excited about trying to do something with them. So what we did was develop a strategy in which we requested some money from the WWF, to make workshop there in Iguazu.

JP: That's the World Wildlife Fund to not be confused... with other organization of similar letters.

GT: Ok so we invited to this workshop, and we get the money and we invited the people who were in some way representatives of people who were in some way main stakeholders of this conflict. So we brought people from the church, all the grassroots organizations supporting the landless, we brought people from the National Park, and the ministry of ecology, and from some environmental NGOs - because we knew these were people who never talk among them. So we're putting them in a workshop in a beautiful place for five days. It would be an interesting lab in terms of what would happen. We offer this as a training program for conflict resolution tools, and of course everybody wants to be trained in how to improve conflict negotiation or whatever. So we were lucky, and the people really came, and it was very interesting what happened during the workshop because the woman representing the national park because the woman organizing a demonstration against, how do you say, squatters? And Iguazu is a main tourist place in Argentina, so it's a main concern, and having all those people within ten minutes of our beautiful falls where all the tourists are coming. So they were organizing some demonstrations in the streets in order to pull down all those people and push the mayor to do something. And he was in the workshop, and she realized after two days this was not going to be a good strategy. We were doing some interesting role plays between the church representatives and the authorities' representatives and the landless representatives and we could see how they were like switching the meanings of how this conflicts were in some way constructed previously in their mind. So when we finished this workshop on cooperative processes, cooperative planning processes, they requested some help to deal with this conflict. So we requested, which conflict would you like to take that is interesting for you, we could talk and work on? And they took this one and when we finished, two or three of them went to mayor and request mayor to come to Buenos Aires and request our help. So that was how we entered the conflict and then we have this first stage, this need assessment stage in which we really try to analyze and see if some kind of process could be really useful and what we did was try to commit what we thought were the main conveners in order to be successful. So we put together the mayor, and the legislative branch of the county, and the church. And the three of them were convening the process. So we were having enough confidence. Anyway, there was like, previously to the formal first meeting, there was a lot of work we have done in order to prepare all the people for the dialogue. We spend like three months working with them trying to build some confidence in the process, and in our team, and trying to feel what it was that they need to participate, and to build trust. And then to help the most poor ones to get organized in order to come to this kind of process and help them build some capability in how to talk, because this is nothing that they are used to.

JP: So, like Gachi says, we designed what might start out to be a fairly standard consensus-building process, except that it has all these elements that keep derailing us in a lot of ways. But the thing I think I'm most struck by is the amount of power that we have as outsiders and as third parties in this situation. First of all, because we have access to everybody and the local actors don't. The government doesn't have very easy access to the ocupantes, the ocupantes don't have very easy access to the various levels of government. But we get in everywhere and we talk to everyone so basically in the beginning it wasn't exactly like this and it has taken a little time, but no one can say no to a meeting with us, basically we go everywhere. Which is, you know, gets us a lot of information and information in this situation is critical. The ocupantes a lot of times have no idea what the legal situation is, and we have three lawyers on our staff and they're always trying to figure out through the Freedom of Information Act in Argentina, what the legal situation is of the suits that are going on because everyone who is in the suit will claim whatever is most advantageous for them, even if it's true or not, they'll pull up what looks like a legal document and say the court case is going our way, so we really need to circle around the wagon and join forces, and get together and make moves, which may or may not be true. One of our jobs is giving out information constantly. The fact of observing and asking questions in the 2,000 hectares had a tremendous impact on the ocupantes and the leadership among the ocupantes. The very fact that we were going to put together a local process where people could come and access a space in which big decisions might be made, had a big impact on people, in the sense that, as soon as we started asking questions, leadership started to fragment among the ocupantes. I'm sure some of that would have happened anyway, but I think that our asking and our questions and our observing were a huge factor in accelerating the process of fragmentation among the leadership. The second-place finisher in the mayoral election that I'm talking about ended up organizing ocupantes around him and they were sort of incorporated into a semi-formal organization. But he had very abusive practices. He was a very hierachical-authoritarian decision-making structure, which is fine with a lot of people because that's what they're used to - one of the challenges to trying to start any kind of dialogue is that people are used to this very hierarchical way of decision making. So you have these sorts of abusive practices, where if there was a better offer from a wealthy person in Iguazu, he would come and kick out a poorer person and give the wealthy person that piece of land, which ends up making some people very upset in the organization and because they know that we're about to start a process in which people are going to have access to a space where they can have influence over the decisions that are going to be made over that space, all these leaders started to pop up and say, "Well, I represent these people," you know, and all these leaders are former members of this other group, and as soon as you start asking questions they go, "Well, yeah I've got a group." And the next day there's a group of 25 people, 30 people, 40 people that has formed practically overnight, like mushrooms. And there are leadership changes. As long as the situation seemed to be frozen in time. Nobody cared who there leader was, I'm talking about the Urban section now - previously I was talking about the rural section, but in the urban section everybody thought things were going just the way they were going, it's the natural way that [location] expands. Until we come around and start asking questions and saying "we're going to put together this process where you're going to be able to make some decisions, are you interested?" "Yes, yes we're kind of interested," but then all of a sudden people start complaining about their leader and saying, "well this guy can't represent us, he's corrupt. He took what little money we had in our neighborhood treasury for events for his own political purposes. So we're going to knock him out of this thing." So just the fact that you're putting together this kind of space can change the power dynamics within a neighborhood, town, or whatever unit of political space you're working in, just by the very fact that people want someone who can represent them better - either that or ... that's the ideal ... or the other is that they want to be the person sitting there negiotiating and they want to have decision making power so they can benefit themselves at the table.

GT: So in terms of the processing thing the most interesting thing was how we, in the main public meetings, which are actually very political ones - people's talking knowing that everyone is listening. We have done a lot of work with the media, we have really developed a strategy with the media, we have involved journalists, educated journalists, on why what is the really importance of this process and the key role that they could play. So they were not inside the meetings, but they were, because we make this agreement them, they were not inside the meetings because this would bring people to talk in a different way but yes they were totally committed with us in terms of where we would keep them totally informed, in terms that they would try to figure out the stories in a way that would help us continue to work. The other interesting thing was how we could frame a new problem for everybody. We work with some technology in those meetings is ??? we went to very, very poor places but we made the effort of not only bringing pictures but some ... screens... dartboard projector... so we can put there maps and make some presentations so people could see, understand environmental strategic and importance of the place. And we are getting everybody's voice and they see we are taking them because we are writing where they are getting some conclusions and it was very interesting because they could see the different perspectives, and this was a lot of work because we - our team, between meetings of course - we could put this in new frame. And from a new frame everybody was included but they could continue discuss and cause the problem really something that matters to them. And we started working and we actually getting like successful in some way because the people started to organize themselves, they started working with a ??? government, the church was doing a great job helping us going to the most rejected people because they have confidence in the church and the church started working in collaboration with the mayor, which previously they were just fighting with him. So people start understanding the power of collaboration and then like one month ago they start giving the titles to some of this, to the first neighborhoods that were organized. So we were having some good outcomes and some obstacles as soon as we were working. One of the obstacles was, of course, that elections would come again and polarization and the elections is terrible. So you can work in a collaboration context when you have the elections it's like a schizophrenic thing to try to motivate the people to work together and they are like - we brought some very key officers from the provincial government and they were really excited about working in this process, but then as the elections were coming they have some instructions. They won't to collaborate with this mayor was against the governor, so that's one of the big deals we have to work with. And then one of the outcomes was ??? all this was transparency, make the people realize that this leader was not a good leader and that he was taking their money. He was not in a legal position to bring the title for them. So the formal movement of the landless people start fragmenting the... [Spanish, Julian translates]

JP: Right, they left the administrative board ...

GT: And this leader really get in problems because he start... [Spanish]... threatening the people and [Spanish] to shoot some of the leaders that were bringing the people out of his movement ...

JP: We truly... I don't know where you were going with that... but I was going to say, the backside of the power argument. We have all this power to bring people to the table but when they do it has sort of internal consequences. Thinking in sort of a Do-No-Harm prespective, that fact that all this leadership got fragmented ended up almost killing one of the new leaders that we saw as a more positive leader who came forward, cause the other guy - who was a second place finisher in the mayoral race was a pretty violent guy. And he ended up trying to assassinate this guy by shooting him, and there's different points where we've considered stopping the intervention but it's a real tricky decision, because if we stop, we sort of leave these guys hanging. And this sort of leadership, that we didn't create by any means, but certainly gave a lot of voice to at this table are now at risk because they're going head-on with this ex-military guy who has a lot of support from the province which is the place that has all the resources so if we had left, we would have just left him hanging. Now we didn't leave, and he almost got killed anyway and then of course... I'll let you tell this...

GT: I'll let you tell this because it happened just one week before we were coming here.

JP: Yeah, so it's interesting. I was having a conversation the other day where someone was telling me that they were in Venezuela having a conversation with the media talking about how, "you need to do something soon because the early warning indicators of violence are here." There was lots of rumors, lots of press, and weapons; the people are arming themselves. And these things were happening in the 2,000 hectors and I don't think we caught it soon enough. But there was lots of rumors going around and lots of people had weapons all of a sudden and there was an assassination attempt of this new leader that came up and in the meantime for revenge, the brothers of this new leader - the one we had more in our minds of the positive leader - came back and knifed to death the second place finisher of the mayoral race. So that's the end of that guy. So there goes the connection with province.

GT: The negative guy was there.

JP: I'm laughing now not because I think it's funny that he was killed, but this thing adds a whole different dynamic to the situation that was there before, or maybe it just brings up the dynamic that was there all along [phone interruption] So, there's this murder and on the one hand it's a terrible tragedy because it sort of brings to light the underlying dynamic that I think has been there all along, of violence and power struggle. On the other hand it's also an opportunity because a lot of people were scared by this. I don't think people thought it would come to this, and now that it's come to this, I think this is maybe a little bit idealistic, but it's also fairly empirical from talking to people, I think they are frightened that things could go on this way. So while it's a major set-back in terms of flying in the face of this sort of collaborative dynamic that we've been trying to set up, it's also such a crisis point. Now nobody can ignore the situation and nobody can possibly want to move on like this. I say that somewhat ingenerously, because there are always people who are profiting from more disorder in the 2,000 hectors and they're always some people - mainly traffikers of all varieties. But it's really bringing to light a lot of things and the province can't stay out of the 2,000 hectors as they were sort of officially till now. And I think people are really reflecting on how they want to relate to each other in the 2,000 hectors so I think we have an opportunity to move forward. And right when it happens, the media calls us, everybody calls us. We're in Buenos Aires, we're very far away, and they say "what are you going to do? What's the ??? going to do? What' s your dialogue going to do?" which I think speaks to how "in the system" we have become. I remember speaking with Louis Diamond who said you have to be careful not to become a part of the conflict dynamic, but we are.

GT: There's no way.

JP: But we're there. We're in this. [Interruption] So we're a political force in the system now, there's no getting around that - we're in the system. And we also have certain values that we bring to that system which have to do with a certain amount of representation and democratic leadership principles, which ends up having us work a lot with the grassroots behind these leaders. So we go to the bases of these leaders, and we really have these "good cop/bad cop" strategies where one will criticize an autocratic leader and then one will talk about how hard it is to be leader and how people need to support that leader by telling them exactly what they need and by demanding information from that leader; having a two-way street. So now we're in this new leadership crisis ...

GT: But I think the turning point for the crisis was that we help to organize the census, in a way in which the people really got confident so the outcome was to be very clear on who were the really people that meet demand because we're poor and landless and who were the people where ???, they were not just the poor landless. Which actually were this leaders' friends. And this brought so much confidence on the poor people in the process, which when we finish this census and we did it with the help of the university, the university brought their social workers in order to do this in a very transparent way. And when we finish we make a big presentation for everybody so they could see how we had all this outcomes of who were who, who was doing what, and then the people that was trapped by this negative leader who was not able to come and census themselves because they were threatening who could have done it, they said, "We want to come here. We want to beat Nedalo ??? We really want to get rid of this guy." So I'm not sure how much we can prevent this crisis if we are doing what we do, and in some way, sometimes what I feel is that you have to put a little more conflict in order to transform the conflict and not just to contain or avoid it. This could not have happened if we not put there all this information, this access to information to the people, this transparency and the skills, you know, to bring them some voice and make them understand that they could really work with the ??? and get some land, and projects and whatever. So this is something that I think that we are learning. We don't have to be afraid of bringing more conflict, because sometimes that's the way in which it has to be.

JP: I mean, hopefully nobody dies from it, but I think that's right.

GT: Yes, it's really - I don't have a word in English - but moving to us. All of us were really shocked by this situation because we were not expecting it But as soon as we get more involved and we analyze it, I think it's maybe one of the natural consequence. Actually this is a way in which these people relate each other; the lack of institutions, the judge is not there, they couldn't go to the justice system. So they took justice into their owns and they're just shooting themselves ... Fortunetly, we have just one person dead. But the violence was there when we arrived.

JP: Long story short, it takes a long time and it's a tremendous process of education and it's a constant almost overseeing, I mean it sounds a little patronizing, but really making sure the link between the leader and the grassroots is there and that is a real information flow between the leadership and the grassroots which means we're constantly working outside of the main meetings in the 2,000 hectors, with these different leaders. And ultimately the biggest conflict is not between the municipality and the Ocupantes, but between the Ocupantes themselves.

GT: No, not only that, but this is also an opportunity because the provincial government who was not willing to help because of the possibility of political confrontation is now being blamed by everybody. "You should have been here because you have the power, the institutions to bring a different context." So I think in that way it's also an opportunity because is in some way saying, "we are the victims of your political deals/confrontations/whatever. We pay the prices for you fighting guys - the powerful guys." Now this is there, this is obvious, this is in the media, so now the governor could say, "Hey. ??? Don't support that guy." Cause he is, you know, responsible.

JP: The last thing I would say is just a note about corruption, which has very much to do with the political fights that they're having, that Gachi's talking about. It's just a constant pattern of these client-patron relationships where these authoritarian structures are looking to benefit themselves rather than their base, and there's a certain risk when you bring people together to try to have positive communication or constructive communication - that there will be a small dialogue table formed in parallel to the big one, this big large transparent effort that we're putting together, the risk is that when you improve relationships just a little bit that these 5 or 6 or 8 main players - I guess they're fewer actually, I guess there's 5 main players, 4 or 5 main players - would get together and make political deals behind the scenes now that they're having to deal with each other in the big dialogue anyway, that they would have their own small dialogue that is very untransparent and come up with some arrangement that probably will not benefit their people. So you're constantly riding this line of, how friendly do we want people to be, how friendly is too friendly? That's a challenge I suppose. But the idea is to create enough transparency that that couldn't happen. It's very tricky in that sense. So that's where we are in that process and we'll let you know next year.