20 years ago this month, a group of fiercely dedicated activists from across the globe had a vision: to create a cross-regional, grassroots network to stop the threat of incineration and build a just, zero waste future. Over the course of December, we will be featuring stories from GAIA’s founding members in five continents on what it was like to be there at the beginning, and what inherent values and ideas  laid the groundwork for the powerful force that GAIA is today. 

With a Shared Vision, a Better World is Possible

A Conversation with Verónica Odriozola, Founding Member of GAIA

by Camila Aguilera, Latin America Program Advisor

Verónica Odriozola was born in an inner city of Argentina but lived in Buenos Aires for most of her life. At seventeen years old, she started what is now an extensive career in environmental activism, quite some time before she finished university and became a biologist. In the mid-80s while she was still in school, Verónica found out that the French foreign intelligence services had sunk Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior for protesting against the French nuclear testing. “It was something that moved me, I was very connected with pacifism. We were getting out of dictatorships in Latin America and it was the moment to begin militarizing causes publicly because we could begin to exercise those rights,” she said.

Thus, when Greenpeace opened their first office in Latin America in Buenos Aires in 1987, she joined as a volunteer. “It was one of those things that happen in life, in that your commitment feeds back into you as you engage in it. It’s not that since I was a little girl I wanted to be an environmentalist, but that a series of circumstances led me to have a genuine concern that made me closer to an organization that then became my career.” With time, she was able to have a more stable position and was in Greenpeace for almost 20 years where she met Annie Leonard and Von Hernandez, key people in the formation of GAIA.

By ‘94 Verónica saw that there was no formal way of dealing with the issue of trash unless it was through collaboration, and for that reason she joined other people in creating the Argentinian anti-incineration Coalition, after inviting Dr. Paul Connett to give a speech so various communities could strengthen their causes. With that first experience, they began to see that they needed more information, knowing that there was an urgency to stop incineration, but that they also needed to offer solutions.

For that reason, she participated in an international workshop for clean production that was key in forging GAIA. “We went to the university of Lowell, which was a reference point. And for those of us who participated in that meeting, which were basically just activists working in issues with trash, toxics, and incineration, it was like an injection of information and an orientation to know what we were doing, why we were trying to stop incinerators, but we did not know what we needed to boost. We did not talk about zero waste twenty years ago.”

From that experience, she highlighted the recommendations that were discussed to combat incineration through strategies of cleanproduction, but when asking her about the best memories of the reunion she strayed a bit from incineration and share an experience that is very much related to the spirit of GAIA, “it was a very moving meeting because I had just given birth so I had a daughter that was 6 months old, Annie’s daughter was one, and a partner from Nigeria who also participated was with her baby of around 8 months old. It was truly beautiful because it was organized for us to have support and childcare so that we could participate as well, something that was a bit ahead of its time. It was very exciting.”

Twenty years after that reunion, she sees how GAIA has remained present in spaces as a main contact internationally, always highlighting the sense of community. “My vision is for us to have a community where we can interchange learning experiences and where we can share strategic visions, a community that tries to find synergies and not compete.” With respect to the trajectory of GAIA and its leaders she said, “it’s difficult to create organizations that last so many years. When the leaders leave, the movement needs to continue, that speaks to good leadership. GAIA was formed by people who gained our admiration, and there are many people who are committed and are highly intelligent who have a vision that one needs to listen to and learn from.”

With this in mind, what would she say to organizations interested in joining GAIA? 

“For me nothing is possible without others. None of the challenges facing the planet going forward are individual problems. So, we have to build alliances, coalitions, or structures that favor that collective interaction and collective building. You can destroy the planet unilaterally, but one unilateral solution does not work.” She adds that, “the only things you will receive are support, with the latest information, the best arguments, background information about the subject that is being fought for, documents to build alternative proposals, and information to help you understand other realities. It is all about gaining information and requires only a commitment to building collectively and contributing to the challenge of being able to sustain a community to interchange information to strengthen local efforts while at the same time taking advantage of this strength to conduct international campaigns.”

To finish and to take into consideration this very peculiar year, if she could change one thing in the world, Verónica said, “in the context of the interview, I would put an end to the era of fossil fuels immediately, but I also think about the things that are more basic, such as the accessibility to clean and safe water in the entire world, reproductive rights, and the respect for Human Rights.”