Pushing the agricultural frontier

In Tres Isletas, the bulldozers prefer to work at night. Workers in the rural Argentine town say it is too hot during the day. Local residents have another explanation. They argue that by operating under cover of darkness, the machines can continue cutting down the forest without being disturbed.

I’ve travelled to this rustic corner of northern Argentina with a team from Greenpeace Argentina. They have recently published a report highlighting the illegal deforestation of the Gran Chaco, a semi-arid forest stretching 700,000 hectares.

Greenpeace had hired two helicopters for the week. One was used to winch down banner-holding activists. The other chopper was employed to follow the first and film whatever it got up to. Press-hungry companies could do worse than hire these radical environmentalists. Within ten seconds of taking their footage, it was on the internet and being winged around the world.

The choppers were also used to scout out bulldozers at work deforesting the region’s native forest. We followed in a car, communicating with the choppers via “walkie talkies” (referred to as “handies” by my activist guides) and Global Satellite Positioning gismos.

They had got a tip off that one of the farms on the edge of Tres Isletas was busy cutting down trees to sow soya, Argentina’s new “wonder crop” (if you’ve ever eaten a McDonald’s chickenburger in the UK, the original chicken was probably fed on imported GM soyabeans from Argentina).

On arriving at the small town, we met with Oswaldo Maldonado (see photo). He had eight children and had worked as a farm-hand all his life. The large, mechanised soya farms don’t offer much work for the likes of Oswaldo. Most of his neighbours have already sold up, adding to the general shift to the cities. “They are destroying our forest. These large companies leave nothing but smoke and ashes”, 48-year-old Oswaldo told me.

There is no doubt that the life of Oswaldo and those like him are changing irreversibly. The agricultural frontier is pushing ever northwards into provinces like Corrientes, Salta, Chaco and Santiago del Estero. The resource-strapped governments in these provinces are only too happy to accommodate new investors. Forest land doesn’t pay, so they’re only too happy to see that be used to turn a profit as well.

Where that leaves the natural forest habitat and the tens of thousands of rural workers who rely on the land for their livelihoods is unclear. Greenpeace would have them ban the expansion of agriculture any further. With crops like maize, wheat and soya among Argentina’s largest export earners, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Some sort of compromise needs to be found, however. If it isn’t, Argentina can wave goodbye both to its forests and its rural heritage.

Oliver Balch, Latin America Editor

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