Soy destruction in Argentina leads straight to our dinner plates
The extent of the destruction is painful to see. Flying over the area around the El Corralito indigenous community in a single-propeller plane, only thin strips of green are left between vast fields of pale, newly uncovered earth, pencilled in with parallel white lines of the ashes of bulldozed trees.
Only a few years ago, this stretch of land in Argentina’s northern province of Salta was still forest – home to the Wichí people, and part of the gigantic Gran Chaco forest that spreads across northern Argentina and its neighbouring countries Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. Second only to the Amazon in South America for its size and biodiversity, the Gran Chaco covers 250,000 sq miles of dry forest, which is being cut down faster than scientists can study it.
Since 1996, when the government authorised the introduction of genetically modified soya bean, Argentina has cleared nearly a quarter of its native forests. Much of that newly cleared land has been turned over to the soya bean crop that has been critical to Argentina’s cyclically ravaged economy. “Argentina is in a forest emergency,” says Natalia Machain, director of Greenpeace Argentina.
Once harvested, the small creamy beans are crushed. The extracted oil is mainly used for fuel, while the remaining meal – the protein – is used for animal feed. Only a small percentage is turned into human food products such as soy milk. Around 43m tonnes of soya bean meal, soya oil and soya bean a year floods out of Argentina and into Russia, the Middle East, Australia and Asia, with the largest part going to Europe and Europe’s farms.
And the UK is particularly dependent on Argentine soya. In the year up to August 2018, according to HMRC data, just over 50% of all imported soya meal came from Argentina; 1m tonnes, worth nearly £300m. Argentina’s forests are being served up in European farm animal feed troughs, and on its dinner plates.
A number of major food companies, most notably the fast food company McDonald’s, have pledged to axe deforestation from their global supply chains. The European Union itself has made a number of impressive sounding noises on the subject. But when it comes to traceability, Argentina lags far behind its giant neighbour Brazil, which has more controls in place because of its history with deforestation in the Amazon.
“The truth is that at the moment decent traceability of soya bean in Argentina is a black box, and while it remains a black box, Argentina’s forests are going under the axe,” says Toby Gardner, an environmental expert at the Stockholm Environment Initiative intent on providing traceability for South America’s exports. The Roundtable on Sustainable Soy is working to try to improve things, but has had limited success.
A team sent to Argentina by the US-based NGO Mighty Earth came up against a brick wall recently trying to determine what percentage of Argentina’s soya bean originates from deforested areas. “There is no legal requirement for companies to document the geographic origin of their soya bean or provide evidence that it has been produced legally,” Mighty Earth says in a report on the trip released earlier this year. “As such, it is currently impossible for European companies that source from these traders to ensure that the soya bean they are buying has not been produced through deforestation.”
European supermarket chains frequently market their meat and dairy products as sustainable and locally produced, but the feed consumed by the livestock often comes from thousands of miles away, says Mighty Earth. “As such, the locally grown labelling only represents half the truth about the origins of this meat.”
Mighty Earth says the environmental commitments of food companies are difficult to uphold if livestock raised in Europe is fed with soya meal from a country where traceability remains opaque. “Consumers want to know where products come from and want their food to be produced in a manner consistent with their values,” says Glenn Hurowitz of Mighty Earth. “We’ve made great advances regarding traceability of soya bean from the Amazon but we have been blind to the deforestation happening in Argentina.”
‘We have no future’
Meanwhile the Wichí people helplessly stand by as their home disappears. “We have no future,” says Amancio Angel despairingly. He is standing next to a clump of trees, the only home left to his clan after another swath of green was uprooted earlier this year by giant bulldozers hauling chains through the dwindling forest. “We used that forest to hunt and collect fruit, people from other communities got honey there, now life has become impossible,” says Amancio.
Now it is almost totally gone, part of 9,000 hectares (an area about one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan island) earmarked for deforestation by just one out of a total 32 deforestation permits issued in recent years by Salta’s provincial authorities.
The problem is that with its economy in perpetual flux, Argentina relies on soya bean for financial buoyancy. The commodity is the backbone of its economy. Combined, soya bean, soya meal and soya bean oil make up 31% of the country’s exports. The export boom for commodities like soya bean helped Argentina’s economy grow a staggering yearly average 7.7% between 2004-10, after its cataclysmic 2001-2002 economic crash. Argentina spent much of the windfall paying off debt, including the cancellation of its entire IMF debt in 2006.
But with Argentina having had to return to the IMF for a $57bn (£43bn) bailout this year – the biggest loan in IMF history – it is unlikely the centre-right government of President Mauricio Macri will make any move to restrict the growth of its most formidable export. Argentina is counting on a 2019 bumper crop to pull it out of its latest economic dive after a 50% devaluation of its peso currency so far this year.
Nonetheless, in response to pressure from environmental groups to halt the rampant deforestation, Argentina’s congress passed a law that went into effect in 2009 dividing the country’s forestland into red (untouchable), yellow (mixed use) and green (available to deforest) areas. Unfortunately for communities such as El Corralito, the law has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance, with individual provinces authorising vast deforestation projects in red and yellow protected zones. In Salta, for example, more than 170,000 protected hectares – an area larger than Greater London – have gone under the bulldozer since the law came into force.
Earlier this year the national government was forced to intervene, and a moratorium was put in place in Salta. But the deforestation continues, according to Greenpeace Argentina. The local governor, Juan Manuel Urtubey, a good looking and softly spoken 49-year-old politician who has ruled Salta since 2007, and is a likely candidate in Argentina’s upcoming 2019 presidential elections, may have handed out plenty of permits himself but he frowns on the landowners who have continued clearing land after the moratorium was imposed in January.
“Clearings carried out outside the framework of the law are a crime and administrative and judicial instances are under way so that those who committed that crime pay their responsibility,” he says.
The problem is that the law sets only moderate monetary fines for offenders. “The fines are no deterrent at all, producers just factor them in as another cost,” says Noemí Cruz, an indigenous campaigner for Greenpeace in Salta.
The statistics are worrying. Scientists estimate that Salta has lost nearly 20% of its green cover in the last two decades, a total of over 1.2m hectares. Time-lapse satellite imagery is devastating, with large red patches of deforested areas spreading like wildfire across Salta’s territory.
“What producers have done to get around the forest law is obtain written statements from community chiefs agreeing to deforestation in exchange for houses and water deliveries,” says Ana Alvarez, a lawyer who defends indigenous rights. “These statements, often signed with a thumbprint by Wichís who cannot read or write Spanish, are then used by landowners to obtain deforestation permits from the province.”
Governor Urtubey vows that he is taking the deforestation issue seriously. “We are discussing a law to duplicate the size of protected areas in Salta,” Urtubey tells the Guardian. “So we’ll have 4m hectares of protected areas and 2m hectares of agriculture. We’re working with the national government, environmental organisations and producers on how to reduce the environmental impact of productive activities evaluating on a case-by-case basis.”
The effect is not only felt by the Wichí. Soya bean has created a rural exodus from dairy- and beef-producing areas, displacing local farmers in favour of mechanised production by giant conglomerates who wield tremendous economic influence. The sight of the horseback “gaucho”, Argentina’s equivalent of the US cowboy, trailed by dogs, has disappeared from the landscape. Many landowners have knocked down their farmhouses to make more space for soya bean.
During a two-hour drive across dirt roads in Salta, once peopled by gauchos, farming families, horses and dogs, the only traffic encountered was a lorry with a trailer hauling a giant bulldozer to cut down more forest, followed by a small tractor pulling a cistern carrying fuel for the tree-killer.
The short-term benefit for Argentina’s economy comes at a heavy price. “Soya bean devastates native forests and decreases the infiltration capacity of soils,” says the indigenous campaigner Cruz. “Its associated agrochemicals pollute the water table and aquifers. In the Gran Chaco area there is little water to start with, so the contamination of natural water sources is doubly serious.” The salinisation of the soil, which renders it unusable for further planting, is another problem associated with soya bean production.
John Palmer, a British anthropologist who has been living in Salta since the 1990s says the message for the Wichí is: “Bye-bye indigenous people. This world is not a place for you. The world is a place for us, the big spenders, the big money grabbers – that’s who the world is for.”