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

ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: More Soy, Less Forest – and No Water

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 17 2005 (IPS) - In the Argentine province of Córdoba, the prosperity of the countryside stands in stark contrast to an increasingly bleak outlook for the environment.

The district has the highest deforestation rate in the country and there are numerous areas already suffering water shortages due to the climate changes caused by the felling of the forests, according to environmentalists.

In the past few years, soy has become Argentina’s main export crop, and the central province of Córdoba is heavily involved in soy production for the global market.

And when the Argentine peso was devalued in early 2002, agribusiness profits really began to climb.

But it did not take long for the negative effects of the spread of monoculture soy plantations to begin to appear.

According to the National Directorate of Forests, Argentina is experiencing the most intense deforestation in its history due to the replacement of forests with soy plantations, and Córdoba is the province where the most devastating environmental damage has occurred.

Over the past decade, as the output of soy rose steadily, the province lost an average of three percent of its native forests annually. Of the 10 million hectares of forests found in Córdoba a century ago, only 12 percent are left.

The worst destruction has been seen in the hills and mountains in the region, where only two percent of the native forest cover has survived.

“Mountains are like sponges that absorb water and release it gradually throughout the year,” Raúl Montenegro with the Córdoba-based Foundation for the Defence of the Environment (FUNAM), told IPS. “But by clear-cutting the forests on a large-scale, the rainwater rapidly runs off, as if it were sliding down a freeway.”

Montenegro, who was given the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, by the Swedish parliament in December 2004, said the big problem caused by the deforestation in the mountains of his province is that “the natural water factory is destroyed”, which leads to shortages.

In the mountainous region known as the Sierras Chicas, where several large towns and small cities are located, water shortages have led to water cuts in the last few months. The La Quebrada dam, which supplies the entire area, is at present only able to meet half of the current level of demand.

The water treatment plant normally provides 500 cubic metres of potable water per hour, but currently is able to produce less than 300. The water level in the reservoir dropped nearly 10 metres in just a few months, a much larger fall than is normal in the southern hemisphere summer, which is coming to an end.

Deputy governor of Córdoba Juan Schiaretti announced plans to carry out works aimed at boosting supplies, and blamed the scarcity of water on “the behaviour of nature”.

Schiaretti pointed out that while excess rainfall in the southern part of the province was causing flooding, “it has not rained enough” in the northwest.

The Córdoba Environment Agency, the government body in charge of environmental matters in the province, drew up a controversial bill that was voted into law this month. The new law bans clear-cutting over the next 10 years, but allows “sustainable logging” in native forests.

The measure was based on a prior agreement with agricultural producers, which was criticised by environmental groups because neither they nor academics were included in the discussions, said Montenegro.

In an interview with IPS, the director of the Agency, Sergio Nirich, enthused that the provincial law would serve as a model for the entire country.

Nirich acknowledged that in the past century, deforestation in Córdoba has risen steadily, with periods in which the increase was only slightly less marked than at the present time.

But he predicted that “with this law, we will curb the increase, and in four or five years we will start to revert the tendency, even if that means recuperating just one hectare a year.”

The law prohibits any clear-cutting of native forests that is aimed at carrying out activities that would entail a change in the use of the soil, which means that deforestation would be banned if the intention was to plant grains or oilseeds on a large scale, Nirich explained.

He pointed out, however, that “selective” or partial logging will be allowed for activities like stockbreeding, beekeeping, grape growing, or the cultivation of olive trees or spices and aromatic plants.

“We have to learn to use our natural resources in a sustainable manner in order to grow economically and distribute the wealth,” said Nirich.

And although the province should produce “more tons of soy,” it should do so “with greater efficiency, on the same amount of land,” and “not at the expense of the forests,” he added.

The provincial law provides for fines, arrests, suspension of activities, the cancellation of licences, closures and confiscations for offenders, while satellite images of the province’s forests will be used for monitoring on a weekly basis, in order to enforce the law.

However, Montenegro does not believe the new law will provide a real solution, a position that is shared by the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

The environmentalists say the most effective mechanism to curb what they describe as an environmental disaster is to absolutely ban logging for a certain period, and make prison sentences the punishment for offenders.

The new law “is a coup de grace for the scant forests left in the province,” said Montenegro. “It is an irrational measure, without any technical basis, and will leave future generations in Córdoba without water.”

“If the authorities have been unable so far to keep the deforestation from reaching this extreme, they will not be able to control it with this law either,” said the activist.

Further, he added, the agricultural producers who took part in drafting the new law “are the main culprits in the appalling clearing of forests that this province has suffered.”

Greenpeace Argentina is leading a campaign to check the advance of the agricultural frontier in a nature reserve in the northwestern province of Salta.

The provincial government stripped the reserve of its protected status, and large parts of it were auctioned off to agribusiness interests, whose bulldozers are destroying the forests.

The same thing is happening in Santiago del Estero, a province north of Córdoba that was covered with forests in the past. The Campesino (peasant farmer) Movement and other non-governmental groups in that province fought successfully to secure a six-month moratorium on the felling of trees.

But Córdoba, Salta and Santiago del Estero are just three of the seven Argentine provinces where the destruction of native forests “is most intense”, says a report by the National Directorate of Forests, which warns that around 200,000 hectares of forests are being irrevocably lost every year.

To curb that phenomenon, environmental organisations agree on the need for a “territorial ordering plan” and a forestry law to establish a ban on deforestation that would last long enough to allow the natural ecosystems to recover.

These measures are also seen as necessary by the national government’s Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources, but progress towards adopting them has been slower than the progress of the bulldozers and has lagged behind the growth of the agribusiness interests’ greed for fast profits, say activists.

“An absolute ban on felling trees and prison terms for those who do so are instruments that will arrive in a few years, but the problem is that they will come when the water shortages have already become a very serious problem,” said Montenegro.

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