November 20, 2012


China may buy land in Argentina for soy planting



Chinese investors are interested in buying large plots of land in Argentina to use for soy plantations.


In Patagonia, a local uprising against land grabbing is beginning to take shape. The city of Viedma is situated off the Atlantic coast in south-central Argentina, on the banks of the wide River Negro. This is where Patagonia begins.


Two years ago, Miguel Saiz, the governor of Rio Negro Province, returned from a visit to Asia, and rumours began to spread that Chinese investors wanted to lease 320,000 hectares of land for 50 years and build docks in the nearby deep water port of San Antonio to ship soy to China. Local businessmen were ecstatic, but the population was appalled.


A dozen activists from the Food Sovereignty group have gathered at a bar on the banks of the Rio Negro. Theirs is a long battle against growing grain for biofuel that pushes food prices to astronomic levels.


Fabiana Vega, who coordinates the protests against the governor's plans, says her group was especially angered by the governor's information policy. He only conceded information bit by bit. At first, he said a state-run Chinese company wanted to plant soy to fight hunger in the world - a noble aim meant to keep the activists at bay, Vega says. "Who can argue against fighting world hunger?" Next, the governor said the Chinese would process the soy for hog swill. In the end, he admitted to a biofuel project.


The foreign ownership of property caused ill feelings among the local population as land prices rose and ordinary farmers found they could barely afford them anymore. In an effort to calm the atmosphere, the government passed a law limiting foreigners' land purchase rights - initially in Rio Negro Province. In December 2011, the law became effective in all of Argentina.


Laws alone are not the solution, however, says Gabriel Pecollo, a Viedma journalist. "Many rich folks from the north have a residence permit, and the Chinese don't want to buy land, they want to lease it," he argues.


Today, genetically modified soy grows on 22 million hectares of Argentina's farmland. Pesticides and fertilisers pollute the groundwater and leach the soil. Planes spray entire regions, with little consideration for villages and people living in the countryside.


Fabiana Vega's Food Sovereignty group was afraid the people of Rio Negro Province faced the same fate - and filed numerous lawsuits. An opposition parliamentarian also brought the project to the provinces highest court - with success. In November 2011, the court ruled the plan had not been sufficiently analysed with respect to its environmental sustainability.


Fabiana Vega does not believe the Chinese soy project has been laid to rest once and for all: The Chinese can wait, she says, while the Peronists rarely thwart investors' plans as long as the money is right.

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