Farmland Fight Moves to Isolated Argentine Woods
ARGENTINA: August 18, 2004
GENERAL PIZARRO, Argentina
- General Pizarro, a one-telephone town in the northern province of
Salta, gained notoriety last month when environmentalists
chained up bulldozers to protest the sale of a nearby nature reserve.
to raze forests have sparked wider fears that a push north by Argentina's
farming frontier could sacrifice the environment at the altar
A boom in easy-to-grow genetically modified soybeans in Argentina,
the world's No. 3 soy producer, has brought farming to plots never
seeded. After a surge in prices, soy is now grown on half of all farmlands,
and northern provinces represent 16 percent of that acreage, up from
9 percent a decade ago.
Some see the expansion as a godsend for backwater
areas like General Pizarro, a dusty, depressed town of 3,000 people
1,000 miles northwest
of Buenos Aires. The economic crisis of 2002 left half of all Argentines
living in poverty.
But environmental groups say clearing trees for
big farms or ranches will bring few jobs and do great ecological harm,
"People complain that landowners want to convert their property
into farmland, but no one offers economically viable alternatives," said
Carlos Suarez, an agricultural engineer and forestry specialist from
"There's got to be a balance between environmental, social and
economic factors," he said. "If not, there will always be conflicts."
which staged last month's demonstration in General Pizarro, is seeking
a two-year, nationwide ban on tree clearings to assess and
protect forested areas. In June, environmentalists won a six-month
halt to deforestations in neighboring Santiago del Estero province.
sheltering unique plants and animals, woodlands help clean the air
by producing oxygen and prevent flooding and erosion. Scientists
say they may also harbor plant components that cure grave ailments,
"The main threat to Argentina's remaining native forests is the
advance of the farming frontier, especially to make way for genetically
modified soybeans," said Emiliano Ezcurra of Greenpeace Argentina.
This year Salta's government stripped the Pizarro
reserve of its protected status and divided 39,500 acres among three
private companies - only
one of which focuses on soybean production.
Provincial officials argued
that the reserve was highly degraded and would be better put to productive
use. "What good do butterflies
in the woods do me when people are dying of starvation and don't reach
their 40th birthday?" Salta's Labor Minister Victor Manuel Brizuela
A HISTORY OF NEGLECT
Farms have spread north to
arid areas where soils are fragile because land is cheaper, no-till
planting techniques conserve moisture, and cyclical
climate changes have brought more rain.
Some 60,500 acres a year were
razed in Salta's Chaco woodlands from 1997 to 2001, outpacing the world
rate by at least four times, a federal
government study showed.
When Salta's government sold the former reserve
for 10 million pesos ($3.3 million), about 40 families were living
or raising animals there.
The state wants to relocate them and also assist a community of Wichi
Indians, who survive by collecting firewood, honey and plants.
approach contrasts with the government's past inaction. Everyone from
Salta officials to local townspeople agrees the state never protected
these lands, even after designating the area a reserve in 1995.
"My intention is just to keep living here," said Ramon Rodriguez,
a 69-year-old subsistence rancher who has lived in the former reserve
for 20 years. "I don't have anywhere to go or anywhere to take my
Brizuela said revenue from the sale will go toward
improving local roads, communications and the power delivery system.
Some locals worry the companies will monopolize
water, pollute and provide few jobs - especially if they dedicate their
land to highly mechanized
"It's the enrichment of one person and the impoverishment of 3,000," local
activist Carlos Ordonez said.
Story by Hilary Burke
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
Back to top