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AGRICULTURE-ARGENTINA: Trespassers in the Nature Reserve

Marcela Valente

PIZARRO, Argentina, Aug 11 2004 (IPS) - The Argentine government’s decision to sell off a nature reserve in the northwestern province of Salta for farmland has not only serious environmental implications, but also shapes the future of a community who do not want to leave their land at any price.

Not that they live in the lap of luxury. In fact, the 3,000-plus people of Pizarro – a town in this former reserve in the department of Anta, Salta province – barely eke out a living, and besides that, they are now legally considered “trespassers.”

“Even with land and livestock, farmers here are poor or indigent,” Carlos Ordóñez, a community representative, told IPS.

But in spite of the hardships, no one wants to leave the land they inherited from their forefathers. Land which, moreover, was declared a nature reserve in 1995 in order to protect the native forests of this region which are home to endangered plant and animal species.

Representatives of the Salta provincial government have visited Pizarro three times in the past two months to propose that the local residents move, so that their land can be passed on to soy producers who bought it by auction after the reserve was stripped of its protective status.

The decision this year to de-classify the area as a nature reserve was unprecedented in Argentina and drew severe criticism from environmentalists and strong resistance from those who have lived here all their lives.

“I was born here in the forest, the town is not for me,” Nicasia Reyes told IPS, leaning on the log fence around the paddock where she keeps her cattle. Every time they bring the papers offering her a mere 10 hectares somewhere else, she refuses to sign. It’s not that she can’t read, she said: “I just can’t see the letters very well.”

Reyes, 46, has been widowed twice and has 12 children. Her first husband died of meningitis at the age of 42 and the second “was stabbed by his brother,” she said. The family’s only income comes from the cheese she makes by hand from the scarce milk her cows produce. They graze freely in the woods.

Each cow provides between three and four litres of milk per day. If Reyes had dairy cattle or better pasturage, yields would be 15 litres per day, explained Ordóñez. She needs to milk at least eight cows for each three or four kilogramme cheese she sells, he explained.

“With what these animals eat they can’t give more than that, there is no government technical assistance here to help improve yields,” said Ordóñez.

But the people of Pizarro know nothing of technological advances nor efficient production.

Casimira Gómez, 73, is another who does not find the idea of leaving Pizarro attractive.

“I don’t want to leave here. If they take us to a town what animals will we be able to raise?” she asked IPS. The old woman keeps cows and goats that roam the forest in search of forage.

Her only farm structure is a small log-fenced paddock where the goats crowd in. She knows each of the animals by sight and counts them when they come home. Sometimes she loses one to predatory animals in the forest, but sees it as one of the risks of this way of herding.

“With technical support, the ‘puesteros’ (as local small-holders are known) could put up barb-wire fences, improve grazing and raise livestock that would provide them with good milk and meat. But with what they have now, even with 100 animals and 2,000 hectares, they live very poorly,” said Ordóñez.

Lorenzo Cosme is another producer who seems better off than he is to a hurried observer. He has a large farm with a good water supply, but on closer inspection, his farm is on the verge of collapse, and it becomes clear that he barely scrapes by.

Cosme grows maize to feed himself, keeps animals on unfenced land and makes ropes out of tapir leather. He uses these to lasso livestock when animals get stuck in out-of-the-way parts of the forest. He also uses them t o tie up animals when he has to vaccinate them or care for their injuries.

As soon as IPS arrives, Cosme says he is concerned about his water supply. “La Moraleja” a large company funded by Spanish and French capital, has moved into the higher regions of the forest, beyond the former reserve area, and is threatening to leave the local farmers without water for subsistence and livestock.

“We have to kick up a fuss,” Ordóñez told him.

Ordóñez is trying to encourage local people to protest over the sale of the reserve. Their lands are currently in the appropriation process. Some legal issues need to be resolved before the people can be evicted and the new owners take possession.

Cosme said raising cattle on open land is certainly more expensive than if it were fenced, because it is hard to keep an eye on animals which are unwell. But fencing is not a feasible option.

“It costs 180 pesos (60 dollars) per 1,000 metres,” he explained.

In any case, he has no intention of leaving the place where he has always lived.

“The people suffer in silence, they are scared of protesting,” explained Ordóñez. “The government says it is (the international environmental watchdog) Greenpeace that is objecting against the sale, because it prefers to ignore the fact that there are thousands of us wanting to protect this reserve,” he added.

Ordóñez keeps bees and also has a shop in Pizarro along with his wife, Beatriz Ponce. The two agree that the business is “taking on water.”

“We have no way of expanding a market which is permanently shrinking. Imagine what it will be like when all the fields are planted in soy,” said Ordóñez.

Their shop sells staple foods and cooking gas. But more than 80 percent of the people use wood for cooking and heating, said Ponce. The couple took out a bank loan to start producing honey, which was paid off at a very high interest rate.

“They are offering us loans to leave, but I already know what it is like paying them off,” she said.

In addition, there are 25 indigenous Wichi families living in the reserve, and they are also unwilling to move. The women and children do not speak Spanish. The men speak a little, as they were forced to learn in order to work in sawmills or collecting wood for farmers around the reserve.

Now Spanish is used to voice their objections. Donato, one of the community leaders, is worried about the sale of the reserve, and attends the meetings of local residents who are organising resistance.

He told IPS that Wichi women make crafts out of vegetable fibres and seeds from the forest.

The men sell dry wood and collect six different types of honey. When asked what their main type of employment is, Donato invents the term “mielamos” (we honey). They also hunt animals for food. Now they are thinking of planting pumpkins, but losing reserve status will cut short those plans.

“If this is sold, where are we going to plant?” he asked indicating the woods around the Wichi settlement.

“If they take it from me, where are we going to go? On this land we have honey, we have quirquincho (a type of armadillo), iguanas…if they want to sell it, they can at least leave us a little land,” he said.

But what Donato needs for his community is far more than the authorities want to give him. They are offering 10 hectares, but his people need 2,000 for hunting and gathering, which requires a large area to function properly.

“We don’t have a cash income like the Spanish speakers. If this is sold how are we going to live?” he asked. (

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