A Land-Grabber’s Loophole

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  • Due to the global food crisis, a trend has developed in food-insecure countries to outsource food production to lesser developed countries.
  • Current stipulations regulating the purchase of farmland by foreigners can be undermined by renting land.
  • Exemplifying this trend, the Río Negro-Beidahuang agreement was signed without the consent of the indigenous residents of the region and may threaten the environment.
  • Latin American governments should focus on developing sustainable food programs for their own populations; this will include protecting the inherent territorial rights of their indigenous groups and safeguarding their environment.

The acuteness of the global food crisis has forced overpopulated and arid countries, such as China, India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to desperately scour the globe, looking for land on which to cultivate their staple crops. In an effort to secure food sources and financial returns, food insecure governments are increasingly outsourcing their food production to more fertile and usually less-developed countries, including Pakistan, Uganda, Argentina and Brazil. While some of these land-selling states have welcomed the foreign revenue, others have begun to rightfully resist these “agrifood” agreements.

The MERCOSUR (Mercado Común del Sur) countries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil have decided to regulate foreign powers’ ability to purchase large tracts of land. In response to these mild initiatives, various foreign corporations have begun to set up negotiations to rent, rather than purchase, arable land from less-developed countries, treating land usage rights as merely one more commodity.

Case Study: Argentina

Exemplifying the leasing trend, the Chinese food corporation Heilogjiang Beidahuang State Faros Business Trade Group Co., Ltd. made arrangements with the provincial government of Río Negro, Argentina to rent large tracts of land for the production of genetically modified staple crops for exportation to China. Protected by their own governments, these agrifood leases may be quickly becoming the face of neocolonialism in Latin America.

The Details

The contract between Beidahuang and the government of Río Negro was signed in October of 2010, yet was made public, in English and Chinese, only in early 2011. Behind closed doors, the governor of the Patagonian province, Miguel Saiz, agreed to lease out a total of 320,000 hectares (ha) of land to the Chinese company over the course of twenty years for the production of genetically modified (GM) soy, corn, wheat, barley, and sunflowers [1].

At first glance, the Beidahuang-Río Negro agreement seems equitable—the Chinese pay USD 1.45 billion to the government of Río Negro and, in turn, win the right to build a badly-needed irrigation system to secure a food source for the next 20 years [2]. However, excessive tax exemptions, environmental hazards, lack of legislative restrictions, and continued neglect of Río Negro’s indigenous population demonstrate ways in which the agreement inevitably will favor the Chinese corporation.

The Beidahuang-Río Negro business deal grants generous tax exemptions and handouts that end up pampering the Chinese company. Excused from having to pay provincial income taxes, patent fees, and other charges on aspects such as gross revenues and stamps, Beidahuang Food Company is also exempt from having to adhere to the national standard of “reserve requirements” [2]. The contract even requires the people of Río Negro to provide free office space and discounted housing, transportation and office equipment for Chinese workers and engineers. Additionally, the Argentine province is required to reserve five ha of land for the construction of exclusive Beidahuang port facilities, allowing the Chinese investors to have access to parts of Río Negro’s San Antonio Este port, free of charge, until the new harbor is complete [3].

All together, these overwhelming handouts and tax exemptions bias the agreement in favor of the Chinese company and, in turn, diminish Río Negro’s economic power. Furthermore, Saiz is allowing Beidahuang to bring its own hydro engineers to design the USD 20 million irrigation system [4]. The use of Chinese engineers and the highly mechanized nature of soya cultivation would predictably create a small number of jobs for Argentines living in the region.

Environment Under Attack

Patagonia is infamous for its dry and arid climate, which is home to expansive livestock grazing. While grazing alone significantly alters the environment, the introduction of a Chinese-designed irrigation system and the use of genetically modified seeds have justifiably angered residents. Chinese irrigation practices are notably problematic, as almost 40 percent of China’s total land is plagued by soil erosion [5]. Worried that these practices will be transferred to the Río Negro valley, environmentalists and concerned citizens have begun to protest.

Leading the resistance, Nobel Prize winner and president of the Environment Defense Foundation (FUNAM), Dr. Raúl Montenegro, has accused the government of Río Negro of violating the Ley Provincial de Impacto Ambiental n° 3266 and the Ley Nacional del Ambiente n° 25675 — national and provincial laws requiring transparency and studies on the environmental impact of new projects [6]. Taking their complaints to the courts, a group of 24 concerned citizens from Viedma (a city in Río Negro) presented their case to Supreme Court Judge Sodero Nievas, on June 26, 2011. The plaintiffs demand a halt to the Beidahuang agrifood project due to the agreement’s violation of the Río Negro constitution and the high potential for water contamination through the use of genetically modified soy, corn, and other cereal seeds [7].

The Viedma plaintiffs, amongst other groups such as the Asociación Biológica del Comahue, the Grupo de Reflección Rural, the Asamblea de Vecinos y Organizaciones del Alto Valle Movilizados por la Soberanía Alimentaria and numerous university students, are concerned that the toxins in genetically modified seeds—products long held to be detrimental to one’s health—may contaminate the water, affecting livestock as well as humans. While the effects of genetically modified (GM) seeds are contested, there is a large body of scientific evidence indicating that long-term exposure to GM soy and corn can weaken defenses against cancer and heart disease, increase allergic reactions, and reduce fertility in men [8][9][10][11]. Since the agrifood contract trial period only tests yields and not environmental effects, it seems that the people in the Río Negro region will be serving as human guinea pigs, potentially sacrificing their health to provide a secure food source for the Chinese.

The Continued Marginalization of the Mapuche

Work will continue as planned and in August, the Chinese company is scheduled to begin sowing in the middle and lower Río Negro Valleys, that serve as the traditional home of the indigenous Mapuche people. The provincial government leased these lands to the Chinese corporation without ever consulting the true owners of the land—the Mapuche.

Not surprisingly, the Beidahuang-Río Negro agreement was met with immediate uproar and public rejection from the Consejo Asesor Indígena (CAI), Viedma and the Mapuche people. Existing legislation requires the government to specifically acknowledge and respect indigenous peoples and their land rights. Amendments enacted to article 75(22) of the Argentine constitution in August 1994 mandate the government to guarantee respect for cultural identity and to recognize and secure all indigenous peoples’ rights to land [12][13]. Furthermore, in 2006, the Argentine government ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169, thereby incorporating the global standard of indigenous peoples’ rights into Argentine law (Law 24.071). Currently, the Mapuche people are considering taking legal action to halt the Beidahuang project on the basis that the provincial government never asked for informed consent prior to signing the agreement—a right that is guaranteed in Law 24.071 [14].

The recent agreement between the provincial government of Río Negro and Beidahuang is simply one example of territorial abuse against the indigenous peoples of Argentina. The state carries out development plans on indigenously owned land without consultation, causing displacements, evictions, expropriations, harassment, and permanent discontent [15]. Federal courts have historically protected violations of constitutional article 75(22), as in the case of a forced eviction of families of the Quilmes Indigenous Community this June in the northern province of Tucumán [16][17]. With no way to seek reparations or rectitude from the national government, the indigenous people of Argentina are left with no defenses to fend off neo-colonial menaces that wish to sequester their land.

Simply put, the Argentine government has taken a hypocritical stance in respecting the indigenous in their country. On one hand, it cordially tips its hat to the international community by incorporating international laws and codes protecting indigenous rights; on the other hand, the Argentine government routinely infringes upon the territorial rights of its indigenous peoples, thereby breeding domestic discontent.

Legislation to the Rescue?

Current Argentine laws do not limit foreign ownership of land in any way, shape, or form. On April 27, 2011, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner submitted a bill to the Argentine Congress “For the Protection of the National Dominion Over Rural Land.” The proposal caps foreign ownership of land to 20 percent of Argentina’s 40 million hectares of rural land. In addition, persons or companies from foreign countries are limited to owning up to 1,000 hectares of land, equivalent to 6 percent of the allotted land designated for foreigners. Moreover, foreigners are required to report details of their land ownership to an Inter-ministerial Board of Rural Property [18].

However, the proposed bill leaves many issues, such as workers’ rights, environmental protection, and indigenous territorial rights, unaddressed. The bill lacks clarity in its clauses about national oversight and definition of ‘foreigners’ or a ‘foreign company’. One clause labels a company as foreign once 51 percent of the company’s capital stock is in the hands of foreigners, while the second requires only 25 percent [19][20]. A further limitation is that if implemented, the bill would not be applied retroactively, thereby excluding the Beidahuang-Río Negro contract from any reforms. The challenges associated with this bill will involve not only drafting and passing an effective bill, but abiding by its rules once it passes—something the Argentine government has failed to do with existing legislation dealing with indigenous lands. The establishment of a regulatory committee mandated to oversee the details of any private land agreement, similar to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, would allow for stricter adherence to environmental and human rights norms. This committee could establish trial periods for land sale agreements to monitor the environmental effects on lands sold and investigate the effects of such agreements on the environment and the indigenous inhabiting the area.

Respect Thy Neighbor

Though Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia are also experiencing their own land-grab phenomena, a large portion of their business partners are not from overseas. Drawn by cheaper land and reduced exportation taxes, Argentina and Brazil are buying adjacent lands from their neighbors in order to build up their respective soy empires.

In Paraguay, Argentine firms and individuals own about 60 percent of the 3 million hectares of land used to cultivate soy. Furthermore, as of 2010, foreigners own 19.4 percent (7,889,128 ha) of all Paraguayan land. Uruguay’s status is equally eye-opening: Argentines own almost all of the 500,000 ha of Uruguayan soil designated for soy cultivation, while foreigners own a total of 5.5 million ha of territory, or 25 percent of the country’s total arable land [21]. This unsettling trend continues in Bolivia, where foreign agribusiness investors own or rent over one million ha of the nation’s land: Brazilian investors claim 700,000 ha; the Argentine’s, 100,000 ha; Middle Easterners and Japanese, 200,000 ha. Due to the threat of agrarian reform, it is possible that many of these agribusiness transactions are not even publicly registered, leaving many lands unaccounted for by the Bolivian government [22].

Initiatives to slow the transfer of land to foreigners have proved futile thus far. Paraguay ratified the toothless Law 2.532/5 in 2005, which prohibits the sale of land to foreigners, except those from neighboring countries in areas within 50 kilometers of the border [23]. Furthermore, after 15 years of agrarian reform, Bolivia has yet to restrict the “foreignization” of land through any legislative means.

Uruguay has also shown limited promise in establishing restrictive legislation. Uruguayan Senator Jorge Saravia publicly announced his plans to submit a report to the current president, José Mujica, concerning the sale of land to foreigners [24]. Although former Frente Amplio President Tabaré Vázquez failed to rally support for a bill that restricted the transfer of lands to foreigners, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition’s current domination of the Uruguayan Assembly sustains hope for the initiative’s eventual success. No current or past legislation in the region discusses restrictions for leasing land.

The Looming Prevalence of Land-Grab Loopholes

Restrictive legislation on the selling of land will continue to be null and void so long as foreigners can rent farm land. Regardless of any progress in creating legislation against the transfer of lands to foreigners, all efforts may be undermined by a Beidahuang-like contract, or the ‘leasing loophole’.

Unfortunately, Argentina is not the only country in the neighborhood that has back-tracked by utilizing the lease loophole. As one of the world’s largest agriculture exporters, Brazil has interest in protecting its agriculture sector from foreign speculation. Last year, the attorney general’s office began to enforce the Brazilian real estate law to restrict and oversee foreign land grabbing. Prompted by 2010’s USD 15 billion loss of foreign direct investment, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff is desperately looking for ways to relax restrictions on foreign investment. Rousseff and her agriculture minister, Wagner Rossi, are contemplating leasing land out to foreign companies to circumvent the current restrictive legislation against the purchase of land, thus ushering in a new era of neo-colonialism [25].

Food for Thought

The heads of indigenous people and innocent citizens of underdeveloped regions, such as the Río Negro, oftentimes comprise the steps to the stairway of economic success. While the Beidahuang-Río Negro agreement will provide China with a source of sustenance for the next 20 years, Argentina’s soil fertility and national sovereignty will suffer. Without strong legislation that restricts the quantity of land available to foreigners, without regulations that protect the integrity of their land and water sources and without institutionalized representation of indigenous interests, Latin American countries may quickly fall down the slippery slope of foreign speculation and domination.

The redirection of food markets is particularly urgent for countries such as Bolivia, where 23 percent of the population is listed as undernourished by the Human Development Index [26]. Understandably, these MERCOSUR countries want to lure new investors, but their governments should also invest in the domestic agricultural sector to spur food production for local markets. Initiatives to increase production on domestic farms should come from the state itself. The Alliance Against Hunger and Malnutrition has suggested that agro-ecological initiatives improve domestic crop production by significantly reducing rural poverty, protecting farmers from the volatility of prices on the world market, and cutting out state subsidies on foods in local markets [27]. Essentially, the governments of these countries should teach domestic farmers new advanced techniques and allow for fair competition in order to promote self-sufficiency.

Until they can secure food for their own populations, countries such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina should strive for sustainable agrifood agreements that stimulate job creation and benefit, rather than harm, their own people. Instead of allowing their lands to be exploited by multinational corporations, these Latin American countries must wean themselves off foreign demands and make their own food security their top priority.

References for this article can be found here.