Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

AGRICULTURE-ARGENTINA: Soy Overruns Everything in Its Path

Marcela Valente

SALTA, Argentina, Aug 6 2004 (IPS) - High international soybean prices have pushed the crop far beyond the traditional farmlands of central and eastern Argentina, into the arid northwest, steamrolling over small farms and even protected forest areas.

Between 1996 and 2004, soy output in Argentina rose from 11 million to 36.5 million tons, 95 percent of which was for export. This means soybean crops today cover fully half of the available arable land in the country, starting with the richest farming lands of the pampas – the vast plains of central Argentina -where just 50 hectares can give a good return.

But as the soy boom spread toward the northwestern provinces – a poor region far from the big ports – farms of at least 1,000 to 2,000 hectares were needed to make the business profitable, and plantations of this size require a mere two to five workers to manage the crop.

This was the explanation given to IPS by rural sociologist Chris Van Damme – professor of environmental policy and sustainable development at the National University of Salta, in northwestern Argentina.

The provinces of Salta, Catamarca, Jujuy, Santiago del Estero and Tucumán make up a vast arid zone along the border with Bolivia, covering 12 percent of the nation’s nearly 2.8 million square kilometres.

Data from the National Institute of Agricultural Technology indicate that of the 1.9 million hectares planted in beans, maize, sorghum, cotton, ground nuts and soy in that region, almost 80 percent is dedicated to soy production.

But while soy output has skyrocketed, so have poverty rates in that region, which is home to four million of Argentina’s 37 million people. Between 1998 and 2002, the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty increased from eight to 29 percent in Catamarca, from 20 to 36 percent in Jujuy, from 12 to 43 percent in Salta, from 15 to 32 in Santiago and from nine to 34 percent in Tucumán.

The government Information, Monitoring and Evaluation System of Social Programmes provided these province by province statistics, and figures from the same report show that unemployment stands at more than 20 percent in some northwestern cities, which also have similar rates of underemployment.

Nor are those in work in the best of worlds. Between 41 and 53 percent of those who have work in the five provinces are active in the informal sector of the economy, and between 46 and 56 percent of all jobs are considered “precarious” as the workers receive no social or retirement benefits.

Van Damme said that over the past decade, as soy has expanded, the number of rural workers in Argentina has halved from one million to 500,000, and thousands of small landowners have been forced to sell up and join the ranks of the unemployed or precarious workers.

“The amount of labour needed on the land fell from 2.5 work days per hectare per year in 1990, to 0.5 in 2003,” said Van Damme, whose thesis is titled “Employment, environmental degradation, technological change and sustainable development: Effects of the introduction of soy in Salta”.

In Lajitas, a town in the middle of soybean country in Salta province, the number of small-scale farmers shrank from 250 to 90, he said. Also, a protected forest reserve in the department of Anta, in that province, was split into 2,000-hectare lots this year to be sown with the country’s star crop of the day.

The town of Pizarro, population 3,000, stands in the middle of the reserve. Beatriz Ponce runs a small shop there.

“Soy is no good for me, it creates no jobs and I will have no more customers,” she complained to IPS, with bulldozers on the edge of town, ready to clear the surrounding forest for the new plantations.

Ponce said her parents came to Pizarro in 1936 to work in the sawmills when the railway was being built through the forests of quebracho and carob trees. When the sawmills closed, the forests had shrunk and the workers were left homeless. She thinks the same will happen when the euphoria caused by the high soy prices has worn off.

“In Chaco (a province on the eastern border), whole villages have already disappeared,” she said, while serving customers. “They said that progress would come with the soy there too, and all that was left was a desert and the people all left in search of work,” said Ponce.

Van Damme concurred. Genetically modified “soy is a farm product that needs no farmers. In the northeast, far from the ports, the monoculture model demands extensive tracts of land and highly sophisticated machinery. To bring that about, land is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and small-scale producers are disappearing,” he explained.

While the authorities identify soy with progress, Van Damme said there will be few local benefits; the only herbicide needed by genetically modified soy is glyphosate, an imported product, and the machines used are contracted out from provinces in the centre of the country.

“Not even the drivers of the seed drills or harvesters are from this region,” he stated. Nor are the beans processed locally. For soy oil or animal feed production, the soybeans are taken from the northwest to Santa Fe and Buenos Aires in the east or to Córdoba, in the centre of the country.

Export tariffs of 20 to 23 percent on soy go into national government coffers. Provincial governments only earn revenue from land taxes charged to the producers.

In fact, Salta’s provincial government made its decision to eliminate the protected status of the Pizarro reserve as it needed the cash to build two highways required to transport soy quickly to the ports.

The new “soy barons” – as they are dubbed by environmental groups critical of the monocropping – explain away the impact of the soy boom and take full advantage of the lack of zoning regulations in Argentina. Other countries have systems where the state intervenes to diversify agricultural production.

Alex Murphy, an agricultural consultant in the Oran region of Salta, told IPS that high international soy prices, which peaked at 240 dollars a ton last year, are behind the massive expansion of soy plantations.

“New land has been cleared, while areas planted in different crops have been replaced with soy,” he noted.

In his opinion, 1,000 hectares is an area big enough to make the business attractive even with prices falling to 160 dollars a ton in recent days. But he admitted few jobs are created as the technology used is “highly efficient.”

As for preventing soil deterioration in the medium-term, Murphy, an agricultural engineer, said erosion can be avoided if soy is complemented with other high-volume crops like maize, with 20 percent of the land reserved for the alternative crop each year, in rotation.

However, he knows producers find it difficult to implement rotation, and put it off, even though they understand that it is necessary.

Murphy pointed out, however, that despite the fall in international prices and the government tariffs, “money is still being made.” There is a 50 percent profit on a good soy harvest, he pointed out.

And if prices do continue to slide, he predicted, producers will simply switch to a more profitable large-scale monoculture crop.

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