The forest invasion

The forest invasion

By Darío Aranda

Social organizations warn about the risks of tree monoculture for the pulp industry and sawmills: concentration of land, loss of biodiversity, and peasant and indigenous evictions. "This is not found in a monoculture of pine trees," they explain from the Mesa Campesina del Norte Neuquino.

Green, neat and online. They are like an army in formation. The north of Misiones is invaded by trees that seem cloned, thousands of hectares of pine trees, the most popular crop in the province, a basic raw material for pulp mills and sawmills. Driven by governments and the business sector, massive tree planting is a growing phenomenon, but with silenced consequences: loss of biodiversity and compulsory eviction of peasants and indigenous people. “It is an advance like that of soybeans, which evicts ancestral inhabitants, destroys native vegetation, uses pesticides and squeezes territories with the sole purpose of obtaining money. It is that forestry companies do not plant forests, they plant industrial monocultures ”, says the Indigenous Advisory Council (CAI), one of the organizations that have declared themselves on alert due to the forest advance in Patagonia, with growing conflicts in Río Negro and Neuquén. In the last decade, intensive forestry doubled its production and the area planted, under the protection of a generous law - approved during the Menemism and later extended - that grants subsidies to companies, VAT refunds and exemption from Gross Income, among other advantages. . In short, a low-profile, high-profitability industry.

Powerful industry

Statistics from the National Secretariat of Agriculture show that in 1999, the first year of the forest law 25,080, 4.7 million tons of “implanted forest wood” were extracted. In 2006, the last available record, the tonnage increased to 7.9 million. Misiones is the logging province par excellence, with 59 percent, followed far behind by Entre Ríos with 11 percent, Buenos Aires and Corrientes with 8 percent. Río Negro and Neuquén are minor players, but on the rise. Neuquén extracted only 22,000 tons in 1999. In 2006 it was already tripled: 69,000 tons. As for the pine, the forest star, Río Negro exhibits remarkable growth: in 2000 it extracted 6,000 tons. By 2006 the figure had already doubled: 13,000 tons. "Mesopotamia and Patagonia are the productive poles of the country," they explain from the Argentine Forestry Association (AFOA), an entity that brings together large and medium-sized companies in the sector.

The industrial implantation of trees is aimed, almost entirely, at pulp mills and sawmills. "In 2007 it was exported for a billion dollars", details the AFOA spokesperson, Jorge Barros, and explains that the country has 1.2 million hectares of forest monoculture, of which half was planted in the last decade, sheltered from 25.080. The goal, ten years from now, is to reach three million hectares, 150 times the surface of the City of Buenos Aires.

Asked about the social effects of the forestry outpost, Barros did not hesitate. “In Argentina there are no peasants. Argentina has small producers, but no peasants. And there are very few indigenous people. Conflicts? There could be a specific one, but they are the exception. "

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 220,000 peasant families live in Argentina. The National Institute of Indigenous Affairs currently recognizes 24 indigenous peoples.

Model province

Social organizations, peasant movements and indigenous peoples warned at the end of the 90s about the shift of the agricultural frontier, hand in hand with the soy monoculture, and also warned about the social, economic and health consequences. They were systematically ignored. Just last year –conflict over withholdings–, the Government recognized the advance of monoculture and its harmful effects. At present, they warn about forest advance.

The Guaraní Alecrín community has 14,300 hectares. It is located in the municipality of San Pedro, 170 kilometers south of Puerto Iguazú. The Harriet forestry company entered indigenous territory in 2007, overturned native forest, wired, contaminated the water well, and razed the community's farm and even the cemetery. His goal was to cut down the native forest and then plant pine trees.

Misiones grew up in the shelter of family farming (yerba mate, tea and tobacco). There were large plantations and they worked for a patron, but the small settler who sold his production also subsisted. That story began to change three decades ago due to the deregulation of production (the large companies set prices so low that the settlers could not survive, they lost their farms and emigrated to the urban cordons) and, on the other hand, the province mutated the profile productive, boosted tourism, hydroelectric energy (with the questioned dams) and forestry businesses.

Misiones has three pulp mills (Alto Paraná, Puerto Piray and Papel Misionero). In the first links of its productive chain, tree cultivation and extraction, contractors participate who usually lead the advance on the lands of rural families. The result is the concentration of land by private parties.

According to the latest National Agricultural Census, there are 27,000 agricultural holdings in the province. Only 161 of them (0.6 percent of the total) own 44 percent of the land in Misiones (917,000 hectares). In the last decade and in the area of ​​the pastures (northwest), the number of small farms decreased by 27 percent. “Artificial forestry production puts us in front of a monoculture and concentration model. With its logic of maximizing profit in the shortest possible time, the forestry sector does not respect the preservation rules, it causes depopulation of the areas and the extermination of a large part of the natural resources ”, says Raúl Gorriti, agronomist and member of the Network of Organic Agriculture (RAOM).

Illustrative of land concentration is the case of Papelera Alto Paraná, which owns ten percent of the provincial land, 233 thousand hectares.

Forest Patagonia

The Rionegrina Forestry Company (Emforsa) and the Neuquina Forestry Corporation (Corfone), both companies with majority participation of the provincial governments, are the ones that lead the shift of the Patagonian forest frontier.

"Afforestations with pines are not forests, they are industrial plantations like soybeans", denounces the Mapuche community José Manuel Pichún, fifteen kilometers from El Bolsón, in full conflict with Emforsa. Despite the community inhabiting the place since the end of the 19th century, the Río Negro Forest Directorate entered ancestral territory in 1987, wired and began planting pines on 250 community hectares. Dozens of administrative complaints occurred that were never answered. The community, which never left the place, always claimed its right over the territory. Last May, when a member of the community extracted firewood, the conflict was reignited. He was denounced for "theft" on his own land.

"Tired of enduring so much abuse and injustice, the Pichún community decided to reaffirm the possession that the forestry company usurps," the organization explained in a statement on June 18. They refused to remove their animals and began the construction of a house in the heart of the pine forest. And they went for more: now the community demands that the state company permanently withdraw from its hectares.

The Indigenous Advisory Council (CAI), where the Pichún community participates, pointed to the bottom of the matter. “We know that the planting of pines, exotic species in these places, is promoted by the State and international financial organizations. They grant subsidies and tax benefits per hectare planted, putting together speculation and extraction of economic benefits from nature. We will not allow our territory to be part of that control and looting. "

International conventions of constitutional rank (ILO 169), the National Constitution and provincial laws are very clear. Any activity that takes place in indigenous territory must have the approval of the affected communities.

The Emforsa company did not answer questions from this newspaper. He referred the inquiries to the Forest Directorate, which did not respond to the calls either.

In Neuquén, the Corfone company plans to sow 3,500 hectares during 2009 and has a goal - for the short term - to reach 10,000 hectares per year. The company did not respond to the calls of this newspaper, but in statements to the provincial media, the president of Corfone and undersecretary of Economic Development of the province, Javier Van Houtte, explained that they are betting on afforesting 300 thousand hectares throughout the province.

The Neuquén Rural Society is an ally in this crusade. “The province has 1.2 million hectares for the activity. And it should be noted that 40 percent are public lands ”, he celebrates in a corporate advertisement.

What Sociedad Rural and the Neuquén government consider public lands are, to a large extent, plots of small farmers and indigenous communities. Transhumant livestock farming is practiced throughout the area, which consists of the movement of animals according to the season of the year. During the cold months (wintering) the cattle remain in the lowlands. In the warm periods (summer) the animals are transferred to the hill areas, where the pastures are abundant and serve as a good diet. Herding animals takes days, even weeks, hundreds of kilometers away. Conflicts usually occur in summer areas and on herding roads.

"It is part of a policy for the dispossession of indigenous territory," sums up Relmú Ñamku, from the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén. The Mesa Campesina del Norte Neuquino expands: “Extending the implanted area was one of the axes of the current governor's campaign, which proposed to quintuple the forested area. In terms of space, it is a direct outpost with the summer fields of peasants and Mapuches ”, explains Diego Solana, a member of the Mesa. The leader warns that Corfone enters the lands of rural families "for the good", delivers materials for the closure of fields (posts, wires) in exchange for temporarily cede a portion of land for afforestation. “Once inside, he doesn't leave her anymore, and he begins to move forward. These ‘agreements’ are repeated throughout the northern province, and then conflicts arise where the company wants to evict the families. "

Argentina, forest capital

The large companies in the sector praise the facilities that the Government grants to the forestry industry. Due to this harmony between the private and state sectors, it was not surprising that Buenos Aires will host the XIII World Forestry Congress next October, the most important international event in the sector, organized every six years and key to large-scale businesses.

Despite the criticism that falls on the forest industry –social and environmental consequences–, the World Forestry Congress has the support of the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI) and of National Parks. The highest authorities of the international event are Carlos Cheppi, Secretary of Agriculture, and Homero Bibilo-ni, the Secretary of the Environment of the Nation.

An advantageous law

Throughout the Cordillera, citizen assemblies that face large-scale mining development multiply, with complaints of contamination. After five years of mobilization, they began to gain space in the Buenos Aires agenda and revealed a legal infrastructure (Law 24,196), approved during the Carlos Menem government, with enormous tax advantages. In the same way, but silenced, the forestry companies also had Menem's blessing: Law 25.080, on Investments for cultivated forests.

The law benefits both natural and legal persons, and subsidizes all productive steps: implantation, maintenance, irrigation and harvest. They do not have to pay real estate tax on the sown lands and are exempt from the payment on gross income. It has a VAT refund and can write off the income tax.

Article eight is the envy of any other industry. It grants "fiscal stability" for 30 years. "It will not be possible to increase the tax burden," the law makes explicit.

Article 17 of the law does not use the word subsidy. He prefers the euphemism “non-refundable financial support” to explain that the State will cover, for plantations of up to 300 hectares, 80 percent of the implantation costs. For fields between 300 and 500 hectares, 20 percent will be covered.

The Argentine Forestry Association (AFOA) participated, in the 1990s, in the drafting of the standard. "We take the mining law as a reference," admits Jorge Barros, spokesperson for the entity, although he instantly distances himself: "Our sector does not have exaggerated benefits." Depending on the product, forest exports have withholdings of between five and ten percent. Although from AFOA they request its reduction by half.

Raúl Gorriti militates alongside peasant families, is a member of the Misiones Organic Agriculture Network (RAOM) and has been studying and denouncing forestry activities for a decade. As for law 25.080, he has no doubts. “It is a great business. This plunder of nature and public funds is the same policy that favors oil and mining companies, ”he denounces.

Eduardo Stirneman, from the College of Forest Engineers of Misiones (Coiform), promotes the activity and knows the law perfectly. “The small and medium producer does not have a great probability of being benefited by the law, especially due to the state delay in paying subsidies. It doesn't work for the little one, ”he says. And he points out who the winners are: "The big producers."

Law 25,080 expired in January 2009, but was extended by Congress last November.

They are not forests

“Large-scale tree plantations are spreading in practically all the countries of the region. Whether for cellulose, wood or fuel, they are implying a series of serious impacts that affect local communities, both social and environmental, with the use of pesticides and environmental degradation of soil, water, flora and fauna ”, denounces the World Movement for the Tropical Forests (WRM). Along the same lines, last September, forestry professionals and students from 29 countries launched a global alert on industrial cultivation. "Monoculture tree plantations are not forests", warns from its title the call to become aware and warns about the loss of biodiversity, alteration of the hydrological cycle (both depletion of water sources and floods and landslides) and soil degradation.

From a technical definition, a forest is a diverse place that has three plant strata: one in which grasses predominate, another with shrubs and a third with tree species. "This is not found in a monoculture of pines," they explain from the Mesa Campesina del Norte Neuquino.

“They begin by planting pine trees on highly degraded lands, but then they advance on others, destined for animal husbandry or family farming,” explains Diego Solana, from the Mesa Campesina, and joins the environmental debate. "There is a deep-rooted discourse that says 'green is life,' and it is not. Forest monoculture evicts, impoverishes biodiversity and is not complementary to other activities, such as cattle raising, characteristic of the region. In short: it is like soy monoculture. "

Patagonia is the second forest pole in the country, but the final destination of its future production is not yet clear. Social organizations warn of two possible uses: future (and questioned) pulp mills in the region and the business of "green bonds", a kind of "environmental stock market" arising from the Kyoto Protocol.

Jorge Barros, from AFOA, explains that there is still no forestry development in pursuit of green bonds, but warns that "there may be." "It is feasible, but the leading actors would be large companies, with no less than 5000 hectares it begins to be profitable," he says.

The Benetton Group planted 6,700 hectares in Chubut, in just five years. The oil companies are leading in Neuquén. Chevron has planted 5,000 hectares. Repsol-YPF has already reached 10,000 and will advance with another 5,000 hectares before 2011.

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