As EU demand for soy grows, illegal deforestation gathers pace in Argentina


Despite a political backlash, illegal deforestation, driven by growing soy and beef production for international markets, has continued to gather pace in northern Argentina

Soy farming in northern Argentina is driving deforestation, according to Greenpeace. Photo: Greenpeace Argentina

According to a recent report by Greenpeace Argentina, between 2016 and 2018, 80% of deforestation in the country took place in the four northern provinces of Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Salta and Formosa.

The report points to the advance of the agricultural frontier driven by soy and beef production for international markets as the main cause behind this deforestation.

Earthsight’s research shows that one fifth of all Argentina’s soy exports are destined for the EU, and that EU consumption of Argentinian soy increased by 40% in the five years to 2017.

The four provinces sit within the Gran Chaco, a diverse biome of humid and semi-arid ecosystems that include riverine forests, wetlands and savannas. The Gran Chaco is home to several endangered species, including ant-eaters, giant armadillos, crowned eagles, jaguars and cougars, as well as indigenous peoples, such as the Wichi and the Qom.

Within the three-year period, Chaco was the Argentine province with the highest rates of deforestation, more than half of which was illegal. Just under 104,000 hectares (ha) of native vegetation were cleared in the province, of which over 54,000ha were in protected areas where deforestation is banned by national law.

Greenpeace sees “clear collusion between the provincial government and agribusinesses” as the reason behind much of the illegal deforestation. During this period, Chaco’s government illegally authorised land-use change in 67 farms that cover more than 50,000ha. 

Under the 2007 National Forest Act, these permits should not have been issued as they illegally changed the protection status of areas classified as free from deforestation.

Noemí Cruz, Greenpeace Argentina’s Forest Campaign Coordinator, said that the “underhanded strategy” of authorising deforestation at the request of agribusinesses puts at risk around three million hectares of impenetrable Chaco vegetation.

“Allowing deforestation in this area flagrantly violates national law and ignores societal demands,” she added. “This deforestation will have a significant environmental impact and will seriously affect several peasant and indigenous communities.”

Despite the negative findings, conservationists have claimed victory over recent decisions by the Salta provincial government to fine businessmen connected to illegal deforestation. 

In early December, Salta’s Environment and Sustainable Development Department fined Pedro Cignetti and Bruno Varela Marín – owners of the Los Pozos (540ha) and La Peregrina farms (200ha) respectively – $78,500 for illegal deforestation.

“While [the province] took a long time to levy the fines, the important thing is that there will be no pardon for deforesters and they must reforest what they have destroyed,” Cruz said.

A few days before this decision, Salta province fined Alejandro Jaime Braun Peña $65,500 and ordered him to reforest illegally cleared vegetation at his Cuchuy farm (550ha).

In 2018 Greenpeace collected over half a million signatures to demand Salta governor Juan Manuel Urtubey to put a stop to Braun Peña’s illegal activities.

Earlier last year Earthsight reported on the illegal issuance of licenses by the Salta government authorising the deforestation of over 150,000ha in the province, in contravention of the country’s National Forest Act. Argentina’s Environment Ministry responded by ordering the provincial government to revoke the licenses granted to Braun Peña.

Braun Peña is a cousin of the Chief of Staff to President Mauricio Macri and a director in several businesses belonging to the family of the Argentine president. 

This has led Greenpeace to accuse the government of Salta and Braun Peña of political collusion to illegally deforest protected areas in the province. In May, Greenpeace presented a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging threats made by Braun Peña against the organisation.

As in Chaco, Salta’s authorities have also faced criticism for illegally authorising land-use change in protected areas. In April 2018 the National Audit Office (AGN) – the government agency in charge of assisting Congress with overseeing the public budget – made public a 2017 report where it stated that Salta had put in place a legal framework to circumvent national legislation on the protection of native forests. 

The report also claimed that between 2010 and 2014 Salta’s government illegally authorised deforestation in 32 farms covering 145,000ha.

According to AGN this deforestation was illegal as provincial legislation cannot undermine environmental standards set by national law. AGN further stated that Salta should cancel the permits for deforestation not yet carried out and reforest already deforested areas, which totalled over 35,000ha.

Greenpeace has called on authorities to stop issuing illegal permits for land-use change, cancel permits already issued, reforest, and typify illegal deforestation as a criminal offence.

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