I just came back from fieldwork in Argentina. Jointly with Phd candidate Almudena García-Sastre, we visited the soy expansion frontier in the north-western province of Salta. Soy plantations are encroaching into the great Chaco forest, the second largest and diverse ecosystem in America after the Amazon. Over the past decade, deforestation has been rampant in the north-western and -eastern parts of the country, since the steady rise of international soy prices has allowed producers to offset increasing transport costs and the magic of GM soy varieties has permitted to cultivate in drier and more variable weather conditions beyond the Pampa. The provinces of Salta and Misiones are territories where not only the semi arid (to the west) and humid (to the east) Chaco forest is disappearing but where indigenous hunting-gathering indigenous groups, as well as mestizo livestock farmers are being dispossessed from customary land rights and alienated from the land. As we discovered during our visit, some of them have been lucky and have gained property rights over a small portion of their ancestral lands…. and are now surrounded by soy plantations (see pictures below).
Land rights recognized to an indigenous Wichi community in the province of Salta (area within the red line). To the north, east and west, land is parcelled and dedicated to soy cultivation (picture below)
© Esteve Corbera
The reason why I start this REDD+ commentary writing about the expansion of the soy frontier is because I think that truly additional and substantial carbon savings in Argentina’s land-use sector can only take place if such a process is effectively targeted and stopped. This is recognized in the country’s REDD+ Readiness Strategy, which highlights that significant deforestation has occurred all over the country over the past 20 years, but particularly in the north-western provinces due to soy expansion and cattle ranching to a lesser extent. The strategy was drafted in 2010 and, as of October 2012, the government was pursuing one grant agreement with the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility for a total of US$ 3.5 million to start readiness implementation.
The REDD+ strategy’s future success seems to depend on the implementation of the 2007 Law 26.331 of Minimum Standards for the Environmental Protection of the Native Forests, and its subsequent procedural rules -approved in 2009-. The Law is regarded as the principal instrument to halt deforestation and has forced provincial governments to elaborate, in cooperation with multiple stakeholders, land use and forest planning strategies. These strategies, in turn, contain maps for the identification of high value conservation areas that must not be deforested (in red); significant value conservation areas that are currently degraded but that may be restored or targeted for agro-forestry, eco-tourism and scientific research developments (in yellow); and low conservation value forests that are degraded and that can be potentially converted into other uses after the correspondent Environmental Impact Assessment, including agriculture and extensive livestock raising (in green). The Law comes with a Fund designed to compensate landowners for the opportunity costs of conservation and to support related conservation projects (for more information check here).
Although the Law, the Fund, and the correspondent provincial developments should be considered a positive step, the reality is that agribusiness companies have found ways to circumvent the Law before it started to be discussed in congress more than six years ago. Several of our interviewees indicated that provincial governments hurried up to grant permissions for large-scale deforestation in what had to later become red or yellow areas. Subsequently, deforestation proceeded apace in 2010 and 2011 because the judiciary system allowed those who had permits to chop down the trees. According to the same informants, deforestation in the north-western provinces is likely to continue regardless of the Law and land-use provincial planning, mostly due to the high rents that governments derive from soy cultivation through both formal (i.e. a 35% export tariff on soybeans) and informal mechanisms (i.e. corruption and agribusiness clienteles at provincial levels). Our interviewees also remarked that the colored areas in the maps do not necessarily follow ecological criteria but instead fit the interests of lobbying groups, i.e. agribusiness and conservationists. If one observes some of these maps, for example, it is possible to observe that landscape and ecological continuities are interrupted by administrative boundaries -see for example the discussion about the maps of the neighbouring provinces of Salta, Santiago del Estero and Chaco in this document by REDAF.
As previously highlighted, these facts and challenges do not only speak about an ecological tragedy but also about an erosion of other existing land management cultures, including those of indigenous hunter-gatherers that live in the Chaco forests and of mestizo small-scale farmers. Does Argentina’s REDD+ strategy offer a platform to recognize customary rights and other less-damaging ways of cultivating and managing the land? The straightforward answer is that the strategy formally acknowledges that indigenous groups and small-scale farmers deserve special attention because they lack formal land rights and have not been able to acquire those despite an existing favourable legal framework (i.e. Ley Veintenal), probably due to the high costs involved in the correspondent administrative process. The strategy further stresses the need to recognize and ensure the FPIC and participation of indigenous peoples in policy planning and in those specific projects to be developed within red and yellow areas and with the support of the Law’s accompanying Fund, or supported by other possible evolving instruments like PES. Our interviewees, however, cautioned against the strategy’s appealing narrative, insofar as the Argentinean government and a large share of civil society have historically disregarded indigenous’ rights and their claims, since small indigenous populations have never been a threat to provincial or federal governments. Things may be changing, though. In the province of Salta, for example, we were told that soy expansion is leading some indigenous communities and mestizo livestock farmers to get organised and protest against land evictions, as well as to shed more light over their current development problems at national and international levels. Only time will tell if social mobilization results in reduced deforestation rates and both legitimate and equitable REDD+ procedures and outcomes.
In a nutshell, the Argentinean case demonstrates that increasing international and national efforts to curve deforestation are unlikely to become effective on lands that are suitable for the “production” of higher-value commodities, even if such lands host invaluable socio-ecological systems. Furthermore, it shows that conservation laws and programs can run in parallel to both legal and illegal processes of deforestation, degradation and natural resource conversion, and that together can constrain the rights of access and usufruct of other social actors, thus fueling (a sometimes silent) conflict in tenure-disputed territories. The intersection of REDD+ laudable planning goals with the interest of governments to continue supporting the production of agricultural, export-driven commodities can result in a burden for the poorest inhabitants of affected environments, including indigenous groups and other subsistence and small-scale farmers. If we happen to observe this intersection and pattern of outcomes elsewhere around the world at present and in forthcoming years, then two inevitable questions come to my mind: first, do we really need so much investment in REDD+ preparedness and implementation if powerful actors and environmentally harmful activities cannot be stopped from doing socio-ecological harm? And, second, whose interest does REDD+ really serve? These questions are easy to formulate but require rigorous research that is mostly still to come.
This commentary has been also posted in the blog series of the University of Arizona’s Public Political Ecology Lab – http://ppel.arizona.edu/blog/2013/03/14/redd-what-and-whose-interest