Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Seven million hectares of forests have been lost in Argentina over the past 20 years

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Seven million hectares of forests have disappeared in Argentina in the past two decades, largely due to soy plantations.

Seven million hectares of forests have been lost in Argentina over the past 20 years
  • Between 1998 and 2006, the deforested surface of Argentina was of almost 3,000 hectares --the equivalent of 250,000 hectares a year or one hectare every two minutes.
  • A forest law was passed in march of 2007, despite opposition by some lawmakers from the largely deforested northern provinces.
  • The funds assigned by the Argentinian Congress for forest protection in 2016 are 23 times less than what is established by the national forestry norm.
The Atlantic Forest in Misiones, Argentina. Photo courtesy of The World Land Trust (WLT).
The Atlantic Forest in Misiones, Argentina. Photo courtesy of The World Land Trust (WLT).

Agriculture in Argentina has expanded at an accelerated rate in the past twenty years due to technological advances, the use of genetically modified crops, and, in particular, to the cultivation of soybean.

The South American country is the first global exporter of soy, and the biggest provider of flour and biodiesel made from its derivates; the crop is an important source of income. However, according to the coordinator of Greenpeace’s forest campaign in Argentina, Hernán Giardini, “the advance of genetically-modified soy production since the mid-nineties until now, and the intensive cattle raising in the north” are the main causes for forest loss in the country.

According to a rating created by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Argentina is among the top ten countries that destroy their forests the most, and the FAO calculates the loss has amounted to more than 7.5 million hectares since 1990.

Satellite data from 2004 analyzed by Argentina’s Secretary of Agriculture, Cattle, Fishing and Food confirm this: they have found a clear link between areas planted with soybean and the deforestation of native Argentinean forests. Between 1998 and 2006, the deforested surface of Argentina was of almost 3,000 hectares –the equivalent of 250,000 hectares a year or one hectare every two minutes. Almost 80% of forest loss has taken place in the northeastern part of the country, in Salta, Santiago Del Estero, Chaco and Formosa provinces.

Given this extremely high rate of deforestation, congressman Miguel Bonasso presented in June 2006 a proposal for a proposal for the Environmental Protection of Native Forests Law. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, and Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina supported the initiative that ended up being approved in March of 2007, despite opposition by some lawmakers in the north, where most of the deforestation takes place.

But despite the forest law, Giardini mourns the fact that destruction is still ongoing.

“The corporate sector destroys forests illegally because if they get punished for it, it’s a small fine that is really minimal compared to the profits of growing soybeans,” said Giardini in an interview with Radio Zonica in Buenos Aires. “And there are local governments that have allowed deforestation where the law clearly doesn’t allow it, through decrees that are much more flexible than the federal law.”

This is why Greenpeace Argentina is currently hopeful that a new law focusing on forest-related crimes will pass; it would treat deforestation as a penal, instead of civil, violation.

Argentina is going through an important moment when it comes to forests: there is greater debate in civil society over conservation, and some NGOs are exploring the possibility of more sustainable soy production in the country.

However, a series of forest firest that started last year have threatened the conservation of the few native forests still left standing. In only four months in 2015, around 60,000 hectares of forests were destroyed due to wildfires, and there are not enough state funds to fight the problem effectively.

The funds assigned by the Argentinian Congress for forest protection in 2016 are the equivalent of $16 million –23 times less than what is established by the national forestry norm.

“We are facing a serious forest emergency,” Giardini said recently. “This has to end. To destroy forests is a crime, and it should be punished as such.”

Ecoregions in South America as impacted by soybean production. Map courtesy of WWF.
Ecoregions in South America as impacted by soybean production. Map courtesy of WWF.

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