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ARGENTINA
Industry closes in on forestland and small-scale farming
Diego di Risio, Hernán Scandizzo
11/4/2010
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Large agro and hydrocarbon corporations continue their push into Salta.

Alarming deforestation figures in the northwestern Salta province point to advancing industry that is expanding faster here than perhaps anywhere else in Argentina.

According to the Environment and Sustainable Development Secretariat, close to 415,000 hectares of land were deforested between 2002 and 2006, 113 percent more than in the previous four-year period.

In late 2008, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended forest clearing in four departments in Salta as the number of requests swelled.

Where agroindustry was to blame until recently for most of the deforestation is now a center for the expanding hydrocarbon industry, whose growth has worried indigenous and campesino communities in the area, who fear they will lose their lands to the oil companies.

Salta is Argentina´s second-largest gas producer, with an output of 4.2 billion cubic meters last year, but hydrocarbon production has only picked up speed since 2006, as local governors have pushed for its expansion. Over the last four years, the government concessioned off 28 hydrocarbon lots that coincide with indigenous or campesino lands.

Exploration by Argentina´s Tecpetrol, Brazilian state oil company Petrobras, and China´s New Times and JHP International Petroleum Engineering has been marked over land conflicts as the companies plan roads and other infrastructure, requiring, at the very least, partial relocation of impoverished local communities, as well as a lack of consultation of the population, who would feel the brunt of any environmental impacts.

The government has responded with militarization of the area as the companies try to cheat the local residents out of their lands by offering tools or other equipment, says Miguel Montés, coordinator of the Wichi Council of the Bermejo-Embarcacion area.

“That´s how they cheat them to be able to get into their lands that the Wichi brothers have held since their ancestors’ times,” he said.

Government backing
Carlos Iriarte, a lawyer who represents the affected citizens, says that since only some of the community members have land titles and national law does not protect dominion, the victims are particularly vulnerable to losing their land.

“This happens with the total complacency of the provincial government,” he said, adding that the local communities are given no free, informed and previous consultation before the projects get under way, nor does the company submit a previous environmental impact study.

Members of the Wichi community who spoke with Latinamerica Press said the police refused to accept their reports against the companies, and that the governmental Provincial Institute of Indigenous Peoples of Salta were working to convince the communities to accept the companies.

Roots in farming
The uprooting of indigenous and campesino families is not new. Sarah Esper, a lawyer for the Wichi communities in Morillo and Tartagal, says that since Argentine state oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales began operations in the area they had damaged the land.

When the farming industry expanded, it did not only mean the takeover of thousands of hectares but also the occupation of these lands, where indigenous and campesino families had been living and working.

Lands have become degraded for small-scale campesino farmers and the home of indigenous communities shrunk as they were forced to live on smaller and smaller patches of land, where the Wichi live off of hunting, gathering and fishing.

“It left the countryside wiped out and we live off of the forests,” said Ramón Sánchez, head of the Wichi community in La Golondrina. “The way they take our lives away, the way they kill us is like dropping an atomic bomb to kill us because we don´t have any lives left; we have nowhere to gather or hunt. That´s how we live.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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Indigenous communities like La Chirola are losing the forestland they live off of. (Photo: Diego di Risio)
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