The photo shows cargo trucks ready to take big chopped trunks of quebracho trees to the sawmills in Juan Jose Castelli, a small city on the edge of an area of the Chaco, the largest tract of forest in Argentina. Flickr. Some rights reserved.
On October 25, Argentines will go to the polls to vote for their new president. Daniel Scioli, the chosen successor of current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is the favourite to win, but he will be challenged by Mauricio Macri (Cambiemos – Let’s Change Alliance) and Sergio Massa (Unidos por una Nueva Alternativa - United for a New Alternative). Judging from the opinion polls, the outcome is still far from certain.
It is tempting to interpret the election as a juncture: a stark choice between a renewed lease of life for the party which has held power for the last 12 years, or a break of continuity. But the obvious rifts between the candidates and the major parties mask a fundamental reality: Argentina’s development model is not up for discussion.
Over the last two decades, Argentina and much of Latin America have seen the entrenchment of extractivism, a particular economic model based on the intensive exploitation of natural resources to be sold on the global markets. Under extractivist policies, the economy centres on the production of primary exports, and on the location of new sources of natural wealth.
While this model can bring vast windfalls when commodity prices are high, many social movements and scholars have raised significant questions about the impact, sustainability and social value of extractivist projects in the medium term. Such scrutiny, however, has hardly penetrated the mainstream media discussions or the political chatter mill.
Argentine Extractivism: A Short History
Extractivism is no new phenomenon in the region. Under the colonial dominion, Latin American territories were essentially the object of plundering of raw materials. Contemporary extractivism, however (also known as progressive extractivism), tends to be wrapped in beneficial alibis: governments assert that the revenues accrued through commodity royalties and taxes will be distributed and devoted to social projects. In other words: the more they can extract, the more money they raise; and the more money they raise, the more they can fund.
During the twelve years of Kirchnerista rule, extractivism has become the prevailing feature of Argentina’s economic development. Prompted by global commodity prices and government policies, the country has experienced a major boom in extractive sectors such as agribusiness, mining, and hydrocarbon extraction.
Since 2002, the number of mining projects has increased from just 18 to over 600.
Across the country’s fertile lands, industrial agriculture has expanded rapidly, reaching record levels of production - particularly in soy. When Nestor Kirchner became president, soy plantations covered twelve million hectares, which was 38% of all cultivated land in Argentina. By 2012, soy had expanded to 56% of the cultivated land.
Oil and gas extraction have also become two basic ingredients of the Argentine development model. To encourage national hydrocarbon production and thus reduce the country’s dependency on fuel imports, the national government launched in 2008 Gas Plus and Oil Plus, two incentive schemes aimed at encouraging oil and gas producers to invest in exploration, production and refinement. In 2011, the planet’s second largest shale oil reserves were discovered in Patagonia. Since then, new legislation such as the Hydrocarbon Sovereignty Law and Hydrocarbons Reform Law has been introduced to encourage further exploitation and investment. These are not inexpensive measures: according to IMF estimates, fossil fuel subsidies amount to over US$17 billion, which is 3.25% of Argentina’s GDP.
Impacts, Resistance and Silence
The pursuit of this development model has come at a heavy social and ecological price.
The expansion of farmland to make way for soy plantation, for example, has been extremely harmful. Land grabbing and concentration have increased, as small farms have been displaced by large agro-industrial firms. Startling rates of cancer and birth defects have been detected in nearby communities, exposed to the extensive spraying of crops with agro-chemicals. The entrenchment of soy monoculture has also led to extensive land degradation, desertification and biodiversity loss. Native forests have been cleared and replaced with furrows. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Argentina is the ninth largest contributor to global deforestation.
In Patagonia, indigenous Mapuche communities have seen their ancestral lands become central to the country’s extractive plans. Petrochemical companies such as YPF, Apache Energy and Chevron have started operations in indigenous territories, causing the contamination of water sources, noise pollution, evictions, and the appropriation of grazing lands.
In Formosa province, indigenous groups have denounced the theft of their ancestral lands by soya, mining and real estate interests. Representatives of the Qom, Pilagá, Wichi and Nivaclé peoples have been camping out in central Buenos Aires for eight months, demanding an end to the violation of their land rights.
Numerous other local communities across the country are also standing up to the government. Towns such as Loncopué, Famantina, and Malvinas Argentinas have become synonyms of resistance, and have managed to successfully delay or reject extractive projects in their local areas.
The communities that challenge official government narratives are frequently met with stigmatization, derision or repression. But the predominant reaction is one of indifference: as the qarashé (leader) of the Potae Napocna Navogo community Felix Díaz observed, “we’re [just] not in the electoral agenda”.
In the mainstream political discussions, issues of environmental justice are peripheral. During the recent presidential debate, the very first in Argentine history, ecological concerns barely surfaced. Pressing issues such as indigenous rights, climate change, the sustainability of an energy matrix almost entirely reliant on fossil fuels, land concentration, mega-dams, and fracking, went unmentioned.
Instead, the key presidential candidates vie for “economic credibility”, promising to reduce barriers to investment and to provide support to the country’s most important economic sectors. Little thought is given to costs, risks, and alternatives.
Regrettably, when it comes to the country’s development, today the only seemingly relevant topic of electoral debate in Argentina is: who will be the more effective extractor?