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ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Bulldozers Could Turn Ex-Nature Reserve into a Desert

Marcela Valente*

SALTA, Argentina, Aug 16 2004 (IPS) - Bulldozers are tearing away the edge of the virgin forest in the northern Argentine province of Salta, habitat of a multitude of endangered plant and animal species and home to impoverished peasant farmers and Indians.

The powerful machines lift the soil like a carpet and everything is burned in an effort by private companies to turn the jungle into farmland.

”If they come here, there will no longer be any animals,” Donato Antolin, of the Wichí indigenous group, told Tierramérica. He is a member of one of 25 families of that ethnic group that live in the former nature reserve General Pizarro.

The provincial government stripped the 25,000-hectare reserve of its official protected status earlier this year and auctioned it off to agribusiness interests keen on planting transgenic soybeans.

The area had been set aside in 1995 to protect tree species like the ‘quebracho blanco’ (Aspidosperma quebracho-blanco), ‘quebracho colorado’ (Schinopsis quebracho-colorado), ‘palo amarillo’ (Aloysia gratísima) and ‘urundel’ (Astronium urundeuva).

Some of the vulnerable animal species inhabiting the reserve are the turquoise-fronted parrot (Amazona aestiva), two types of armadillo, the ‘tatú carreta’ (Priodontes maximus) and ‘quirquincho’ (Tolypeutes mataco); the jaguar (Panthera onca); the capuchin monkey (Cebus apella); the southern tarandua (Tamandua teradactyla); and the capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), the largest rodent.

Now these species are in danger once again, from the tractors and bulldozers, which are leveling the areas bordering the former reserve and are nearing the area’s outer limits.

But Noemí Cruz, of the National Parks Administration in Salta, told Tierramérica that the machines have in fact already made inroads into the General Pizarro area.

Logging in that zone has been halted for now, because of legal actions against the sale of the once protected lands. Operations cannot continue as long as the courts have not issued a ruling.

”The companies (that bought the land at auction) claimed that it was a mistake made by the workers,” said Cruz, worried because the Parks Administration is withdrawing support of actions by the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace Argentina.

In recent weeks, Greenpeace activists on motorcycles and wearing jaguar costumes blocked the bulldozers.

”When they saw us, the men operating the bulldozers got down from the machines and asked us for information,” Emiliano Ezcurra, part of the group’s biodiversity campaign, told Tierramérica.

Better than anyone, the operators know the damage that the bulldozers cause. The giant machines lift up the soil, piling everything to one side. Then, another worker sets fire to the brush and the tree trunks and branches, and watches as the animals run off, sometimes in flames, he said.

Some animals, disoriented in their flight by the smoke, run right into the tractors.

Within the reserve is the village of Pizarro, population 3,000. In addition to the Wichí Indians, a hunting and gathering group, the rest of the community is made up of peasant farmers who are poor but live in harmony with the surrounding forest.

For their livelihood they raise cattle, collect honey and cultivate small plots of land.

It is government-owned land, but they have lived there longer than anyone can remember.

Casimira Gómez, 76, uses a branch as a sort of crutch, to make up for the mobility she lost when she broke a hip, for which she never underwent surgery. She also uses the crutch to shoo off iguanas.

Her parents lived on the same plot of land where she has her dilapidated shack and her livestock. ”I don’t want to leave this place. If they take me to a town, what would I raise there?” she says. ”The people aren’t so nice in the towns.”

Villagers like Gómez are ”intruders”, according to Argentina’s federal courts, which are to rule on the lawsuits filed by environmental groups, the local communities and academics to halt the bulldozers.

The Salta provincial government argues that the reserve was already ”degraded” and says the funds generated from the sale of the land will be used to improve roads.

The province’s lawmakers approved the measure that stripped the area of its protected status, and in June the auction began. The land was divided into 2,000-hectare lots, with one section of 2,000 hectares set aside for the ”intruders”.

The government ”never hired a forest ranger, they only come once a year to walk the paths, without ever entering the brush. If they had tried they would know that there can’t be degradation in the areas where access is impossible,” Pizarro resident Carlos Ordóñez told Tierramérica.

Sandra Caziani, biologist and professor of agro-ecology at the National University of Salta, sees the government’s decisions as ”unacceptable”.

”In any protected area there will be some level of degradation,” and the responsibility for that neglect lies with the government authorities, she said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

The heaviest costs of the land sale will be seen when the soybean boom ends, said Caziani. Soy is currently Argentina’s most lucrative crop and is pushing the expansion of the farming frontier.

During the dry months, the temperature in Salta hits 50 degrees Celsius. ”Imagine what is going to happen without the forest. That is going to turn into a desert,” said the biologist, a member of the National Council on Scientific Research.

Caziani and a dozen academics sent a letter to the authorities explaining why the reserve should not have been sold off. But they were unsuccessful in preventing the auction.

”The greatest value of the area lies in its ecosystem, and that will completely disappear, replaced by crops,” she says.

In circumstances like this, Caziani says she wishes that a local goddess were real: ”the mother of the forest”. According to legend, she draws in those who harm the trees and then makes them get lost in the heart of the forest.

(* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent. This report was originally published Aug. 7 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme:

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