New Agricultural Agreement in Argentina: A Land Grabber’s 'Instruction Manual'

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New Agricultural Agreement in Argentina: A Land Grabber’s 'Instruction Manual'

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Once again we see the same situation as in the majority of land grabs: governments cave in to the demands of other countries or companies to occupy our land without fair compensation. No community consultation, no impact assessment: the people's interests are simply disregarded and trod upon.

What are the implications when one of China's
most powerful agribusiness firms starts acquiring thousands of hectares
of land in the Province of Rio Negro, Argentina for the production of
soyabeans, wheat, and oilseed rape to ship back to China? What are the
consequences for the local communities that live in the region who were
never consulted about these investments and commercial agreements? Why
is the government paving the way for these deals, with all sorts of
privileges promised to the Chinese investors, and not considering the
implications for the region's food sovereignty?

An instruction manual: That's the way Argentine civil
society organisations such as Foro Permanente por una Vida Digna, a
community organisation based in the city of Viedma in Río Negro
province, are describing an agreement signed by the provincial governor
during his recent trip to China. 1
The agreement hands over thousands of hectares to Beidahuang, a
Chinese state-owned corporation, for production of soybeans, wheat, and
oilseed rape, among other crops.

The land will be leased so that the firm can install irrigation
systems. Initially, Beidahuang will invest $20 million to irrigate and
grow crops on 3000 ha. But the project aims to reach a total investment
of $1.45 billion over twenty years and to cover 320,000 ha. Simply
put, Beidahuang is trying to get its hands on a twenty-year food
supply.

What is Beidahuang?

Beidahuang Group is a conglomerate of state-owned
agribusinesses based in Harbin, province of Heilongjiang. It is one of
China's largest rice millers and, through its subsidiary Jiusan Oil and
Grain Group, one of the five largest soy processors.

According to the company's website, it owns nearly 5.5
million hectares (12% of the total area of Heilongjiang province),
418,094 head of beef cattle, 267,266 dairy cows, 1,315,000 breeding
sows, 2,062,000 goats, and 6,352,000 head of poultry. It also owns 54
airports and 30 agricultural aircraft, 198 grain processing centres, 59
seed processing facilities, and 24,151 tractors.

Beidahuang is one of the few domestic soy processing
companies in China that survived the country's entry into the World
Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001, when the government relinquished
price controls on soybeans and imports. China became the world's
largest soybean importer, and the country's domestic soy processing
industry was taken over by the corporations that control world trade in
soybeans: Wilmar, Cargill, ADM, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus. Foreign
companies now hold a stake in 64 of the 97 largest Chinese soy
processors and control 80% of the country's total soy processing
capacity.

The powerful Beidahuang Group has itself considered an
alliance with foreign companies. However, the company's CEO, Tian
Renli, made it clear that such an alliance would be premised on
maintaining a Chinese controlling stake in the company, and that no
"unfair additional terms" imposed by foreign enterprises would be
accepted. In 2009 he told the Economic Observer (China) that if foreign
companies disagree with him on this, he would rather build a global
sales and purchasing network by himself, and complete the company's
internationalisation process independently.

This appears to be the alternative for which the company has
now opted. The agreement to produce soybeans in Argentina is not the
only one of its kind. In 2008, Beidahuang reported that it had signed
agreements with the Philippine government to develop 200,000 ha of
rice, corn, and other crops in the province of Luzon. The current
status of these agreements is unknown.

The global land grab took off as a new
phenomenon in 2007-08 when food-importing governments and
profit-seeking companies began to buy up or lease vast areas of
farmland in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This new land grab differs
from historical examples of the phenomenon in terms of its broader
scope and stampede-like pace; its use of the land to grow staples
rather than luxury crops; the fact that it is led by the private sector
(though governments have a supporting role), and, most important, the
fact that it has nothing to do with development. It is a matter of
expanding and consolidating agribusiness control, nothing more.

The Río Negro provincial government has touted this project as a
"food production agreement" and as an investment in irrigation for the
province's lower valley. It says this is a necessity given the national
government's refusal to fund irrigation infrastructure. 2
But in reality, the agreement is just a land giveaway for industrial
soy production. The Chinese state-owned company gets a long list of
unconditional benefits for free.

It's important to realize that when the agreement
was finally made public at the end of 2010, it had already been signed.
The substance of the talks with the Chinese government was kept secret
for over a year after the opening of the talks were announced.

The cooperation agreement is composed of two sub-agreements: one for
the agrifood investment project, and one covering the submission of an
investment proposal to build a new terminal in the port area of San
Antonio Oeste. There is also a schedule to the agreement whose purpose
is to expedite the "cooperation timeline."

The "instruction manual" contains a set of clauses entrenching a
business model that maximises the company's profits and leaves it free
of liability. Some of the detailed aspects of the deal are:

  • Investment guarantees: The Río Negro government offers "the
    best investment policy, including legislated guarantees."
  • Establishment in Río Negro: The provincial government
    undertakes to provide office space at no cost whatsoever as well
    as housing in "the domicile of the provincial government." It also
    offers transportation and office equipment.
  • Free "viability studies": The Río Negro government
    undertakes to defray all costs related to "investment viability"
    studies. These comprise "the investment environment, available
    resources, investment policy, and economic benefits."
  • Free land: To begin, the government will provide 3000 ha "at
    no charge" for experimental high-yield cropping. Also to be made
    available immediately are 20,000 ha of "idle land equipped with
    irrigation channels in the region under the governance of Idevi
    [Instituto de Desarrollo del Valle Inferior del Rio Negro, a
    government agency responsible for development of the lower valley]." The
    great giveaway continues with the provision of information on
    234,000 ha in various valleys of the province (Colonia Josefa,
    Negro Muerto, Guardia Mitre, Margen Norte, and La Japonesa on the
    Río Colorado) for future exploitation.
  • Tax exemptions: The Río Negro government will make all the
    necessary arrangements so that it can apply rules "exempting [the
    company] from all provincial income taxes and other taxes or
    charges, such as on gross revenues, stamps, patent fees, etc." At
    the same time, the government undertakes to apply to the national
    government for the company's investments to be exempted from "reserve
    requirements."
  • Technical support: The Río Negro government assures
    Beidahuang the cooperation of all the technicians working for its
    water authority, and will make available all previous engineering
    studies and other preliminary work done on developing the port
    project.
  • Use of the port: Until such time as the future port covered
    by the agreement is built, the Río Negro government offers part of
    the San Antonio Este port zone free of charge, and will allot 5
    ha for the company's use. Here the wording is unclear, and the
    obligation to build the new port itself appears to rest with the
    company.

It is important to remember that Beidahuang is not even registered
in the province, and, until that situation changes, "Strong Energy," an
unknown firm, will act as its representative. 3

Once again we see the same situation as in the majority of land
grabs: governments cave in to the demands of other countries or
companies to occupy our land without fair compensation. No community
consultation, no impact assessment: the people's interests are simply
disregarded and trod upon.

And of course, when the company departs after twenty years (the term
of the concession, although the port is being given away for fifty
years, automatically renewable for another fifty), the land to be
inherited by future generations will be degraded and depopulated. Such
is the provincial government's unequivocal commitment to our
descendants.

The lower Río Negro valley

The Río Negro is an Argentinean watercourse flowing
southeast to the Argentine Sea. The watershed is divided into upper,
middle, and lower portions, this last being the one located closest to
the mouth of the river. At that point the river enters a flat plain
where it meanders, creating a maze of channels (some of them now dry)
before reaching the ocean.

All this land was under the control of the original peoples
(the Mapuche) until 1879, when the genocide known as the "Conquest of
the Desert" entered its final phase. That was when this land began to
be occupied by an export-oriented model of agriculture under the
impetus of the governing elite of Argentina, known from that time on as
the "Generation of ‘80."

One factor that changed the entire agricultural profile of the
valley was the construction of irrigation systems. The first channels
were built in 1884, allowing for eventual conversion of the upper
valley into an export-oriented fruit and vegetable production zone
(apples, pears, and grapes are some of the main crops). This
infrastructure was not built in the lower valley, and that is the
provincial government's official excuse for the current agreement with
China.  

In the face of such a provocation, the people of
Río Negro are not sitting quietly. Students, environmental
organisations, unions, church groups, and others are joining in what
has now become a worldwide clamour: NO to land grabs! YES to land for
peasants, native peoples, workers, and small farmers! YES to food
sovereignty!

Environmental experts in the province have denounced the project as a
form of "ecocide". They have raised the alarm in regard to the high
environmental and health impacts that can be expected in an area
characterised by low natural precipitation (200 mm annually) and
extremely limited water availability. They also point to irregularities
in the Province's zoning of native forests (National Forests Law no.
26.331), which make it possible for the project to go ahead. 4 

Prior to the signing of the agreement, the environmental
organisation Piuke de Bariloche stated that "decisions over what will
be produced on our lands will be subject to the needs of the country
making the infrastructure investment. No alternative to the foreign
take-over ("extranjerización") of our agricultural production is being
contemplated. China needs soybeans? Then soybeans will be planted. This
policy flies in the face of our food sovereignty. It's not even so
much the market that's deciding what we will produce: it's China, a
powerful and growing global actor."

China's role in the land grab

China is ostensibly self-sufficient in food,
but its population is gigantic, its farmland is disappearing under the
encroachment of industry, its water supply is under intense pressure,
and the Communist Party has a long-term future to think about. With 40%
of the world's farmers but only 9% of its farmland, China has
understandably made food security one of the main points on its agenda.
And with over $1.8 trillion in currency reserves, China has enough
money to invest in its own food security overseas. As numerous
Southeast Asian peasant leaders and activists are well aware, Beijing
has been gradually offshoring its food production since before the
eruption of the world food crisis in 2007. China's new geopolitical
diplomacy and its aggressive foreign investment strategy have led, in
recent years, to some thirty agricultural cooperation treaties giving
Chinese companies access to farmland in "friendly countries" in exchange
for technology, training, and infrastructure funding. This is
happening not only in Asia but all over Africa, with a number of highly
diverse and complex projects. From Kazakhstan to Queensland and from
Mozambique to the Philippines, a systematic and well-described process
is taking place whereby Chinese companies lease or purchase land, set
up large agricultural establishments, and send their farmers,
scientists, and extension workers there to produce crops. The largest
part of Chinese offshore agriculture is dedicated to producing rice,
soybeans, and corn along with agrofuel crops such as sugarcane, manioc
(cassava), and sorghum.

In essence, the Chinese land grab strategy is
conservative: the government is using financial mechanisms to protect
its investments and maximize its domestic food supply options in the
long term. The pressures caused by the loss of farmland and fresh water
supplies in China are so great that "China has no option but to go
abroad," says one member of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural
Sciences. Food, side by side with energy and minerals, is occupying an
increasingly prominent place in China's overall foreign investment
strategy. 5  

Rural Grupo de Reflexión Rural, an Argentine civil society group
that analyzes agricultural policy and proposes alternatives, also
denounced the agreement, stating that "unconditional set-asides of land
for China to produce Roundup Ready soy represent an immeasurably
greater risk than the impacts of large-scale chemical agriculture
itself. If this project goes ahead, an enclave would be formed in
Patagonia on a scale similar to what China and several European
countries are doing in Africa; namely, they are buying up and taking
vast areas of land out of circulation to meet their own food and forage
production demands." 6

Students have reacted with equal vehemence. Asociación Biológica del
Comahue, a member group of the Argentine Federation of Biology
Students, along with more than 450 students from the 12 provinces in
attendance at the Ninth National Biology and Environmental Science Students Fair
in the city of Bariloche (8-12 October 2010), unconditionally rejected
the agreement on the grounds that it furthers the invasion of
Argentina by transgenic soybeans, as well as causing grave
environmental and health impacts for the local communities as a result
of massive glyphosate spraying. 7
Likewise, high school students in the cities of Viedma and Patagones
stated, "The high school students of our cities oppose the ‘soy
megaproject' slated to be carried out in the middle and lower Río Negro
valleys. This project unscrupulously hands over 320,000 ha of our
provincial and national heritage to foreign invaders, threatening to
destroy its productive value." 8

A group of residents consisting of members of community
organisations, teachers, students, and ex-students of Escuela
Secundaria de Formación Agraria, an agricultural high school, along
with members of the Foro Permanente por una Vida Digna, the Consejo
Asesor Indígena (CAI) Viedma, the Centro Universitario Regional Zona
Atlántica (CURZA), and various political parties met in the month of
December 2010 and issued the following statement: 9

"We firmly reject the ‘Framework Agreement' recently signed by the
current executive of the province of Río Negro with Chinese companies
and/or the Chinese government, which allows for the use of vast areas
of the lower and middle Río Negro valley by Chinese companies to grow
transgenic soybeans. The agreement was not even made public in Spanish."

The Mapuche people, too, publicly rejected the agreement and are
contemplating legal action: "The idea is to start by filing an amparo
[constitutional relief] action in court to try to stop this, since in
none of these cases were any of the rights of the original peoples
taken into account, much less the right to free prior informed consent.
This right is enshrined in ILO Convention 169, which Argentina has
ratified (Law 24.071). So the idea is to begin by asserting this right
since, though it has not yet been given full legal protection, we think
that it's already possible to start filing amparos." 10

Another voice speaking up is that of the provincial Pastoral Care
Ministry of the Catholic Church, which expressed disapproval of the
"leasing of public or private lands, whether to large organisers of
contract agriculture (pools de siembra), be they Argentine or foreign,
or to provinces of a country like China." The Ministry added that "soy
and other industrial crops will not be welcomed under the conditions
created by this agreement, which clearly jeopardises the future of Río
Negro residents." 11

Foro Permanente por una Vida Digna has launched a campaign under the
banner "NO SOYA, NO CHINA: land and food sovereignty for Argentina."
The organisation states, "We oppose the agricultural export megaproject
being carried out by the national and provincial governments, which
jeopardises 320,000 ha of land and nature in our province by handing it
over to the Republic of China to do with it as it sees fit. This
violates our sovereign laws, posits a future of farming without
farmers, and contaminates us with pesticides. It is a project that does
great harm to this generation and the ones to come." (To join this
campaign, write to Foro Permanente por una Vida Digna at nisojanichina@gmail.com.)

Governor Saiz has turned a deaf ear to all these objections: he
signed the agreement and is proceeding to put it into action. But
organised opponents of the agreement are saying clearly and publicly
that the last word has yet to be spoken.

11          Soja: China y Río Negro hacen acuerdo ilegal, http://farmlandgrab.org/17299 15-10-2010

2          Accatino confirma el plan, molesto con los críticos, 13-10-2010 http://www.rocaportal.com.ar/blog/accatino-confirma-el-plan-molesto-con-los-criticos/

3           Se vienen los Chinos http://www.multimedios2deabril.com.ar/?direccion_del_navegador.294.7209 , 31-1-2010

4        Ecocidio en la Provincia de Río Negro. En el año internacional de la biodiversidad.  http://www.losquesevan.com/ecocidio-en-la-provincia-de-rio-negro.-en-el-ano-internacional-de-la-biodiversidad..724c

5        Seized: The 2008 Landgrab for Food and Financial Security. GRAIN, October 2008, http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=214

6        ¡Se Colonias del Siglo XXI: alimentos, especulación y arrebato territorial  http://www.grr.org.ar/documentos/coloniasxxi.htm

7        Río Negro: profesionales y estudiantes de Biología rechazan la producción de soja en la provincia  http://puertae.blogspot.com/2010/10/rio-negro-profesionales-y-estudiantes.html

8        Manifiesto de estudiantes secundarios del Viedma y Patagones, 20-11-2010, http://rionegrocontaminada.blogspot.com/2010/11/ni-soja-ni-china-soberania-territorial.html

9        Argentina: declaración en contra del cultivo de soja transgénica y del modelo herbicida de glifosato, diciembre 2010, http://www.biodiversidadla.org/Principal/
Contenido/Documentos/
Argentina_declaracion_en_contra_del_cultivo_de_soja_
transgenica_y_del_modelo_ herbicida_de_glifosato

10       http://www.originarios.org.ar/index.php?pageid=13&noticiaid=6782

11       Argentina: La iglesia rionegrina planteó sus críticas al proyecto de sojización con China,  25-12-.2010, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/17922

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