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Income Distribution and Environmental Degradation in the Argentine Interior Author(s): Larry Sawers Source: Latin

Income Distribution and Environmental Degradation in the Argentine Interior Author(s): Larry Sawers Source: Latin American Research Review, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2000), pp. 3-33 Published by: The Latin American Studies Association Stable URL:

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Abstract:Thisarticleanalyzestheenvironmentaldegradationof theArgentine


yondthepampais composedoffragileecosystemsthathavebeensubstantially


certainsthenatureandextentofenvironmentaldegradationforeachpartofthe interior,therelativeimportanceof variousincomegroupsin agriculturalpro-


alistsat differentincomelevels.Thesevariablesareusedto showthatboththe wealthyandthepoorhaveplayedcrucialrolesin theenvironmentaldegradation


Thisresearchanalyzesthe processesby which the environmenthas been degraded in the Argentine interiorin order to establish the roles played by differentincomegroupsin thatdegradation.A substantialbody of literaturehas appearedin recentdecades seeking to identifythe actors who produce environmentaldegradation in developing countries.Fre- quently,theseactorsareidentifiedaccordingto theirpositionin theincome distribution.Thepremiseof the articleis thata one-size-fits-allapproachis inappropriate,that no single income group is the chief agent of environ- mentaldegradationin the developing world. Eachecosystemis uniquein importantways. Thesourcesof environmentaldegradationand the actors who bringit aboutvary widely fromplace to place.Neitherthe poor nor the richarehomogeneouswithincountriesor amongthem.Thepurposeof the presentarticlethus is not to disprovethe conclusionsof otherresearch thathas found eitherthe poor or the rich (orparticularsubgroupsamong the poor or the rich)to be the majorcontributorsto environmentaldegra- dationbut ratherto add to the literatureby showing how theArgentinein- teriorresemblesand yet divergesfromotherdeveloping countries.

*The author would like to thank Eileen Stillwaggon, Robin Broad, Robin Hahnel, and the editors of LARRfor their many thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this article.


The literatureon income distributionand environmentaldegrada- tion datesbackat least to the 1970s.In 1987the BrundtlandCommission's well-publicizedreport,OurCommonFuture,drew the attentionof acade- mics and the publicaliketo the issue (WorldCommissionon Environment and Development1987).The commissionarguedthat the poor are major degradersof the environmentin developingcountries.Povertyforcesindi- viduals to disregardthe long-termconsequencesof theiractivities.Intheir effortmerelyto survive,they plunderthe environment.Thenotionthatthe poor producea significantshareof environmentaldegradationwas not a new idea,1but the prominenceof GroHarlemBrundtlandand the visibil- ity of her commissionquicklymade the issue a part of the conventional wisdom of the development community (UnitedNations 1990,7; World Bank1992,23, 30;Kirdar1992,26). Thebelief that the poor ruinthe envi- ronmentprovidedyet anotherrationalefor alleviatingpovertyand an an- swer to environmentalistsconcernedthat economic development would lead to greaterenvironmentaldegradation.2 Our CommonFuturestimulateda lively discussion about poverty and the environment.Dissenterssoon made theircase that the poor were not the major producers of environmentaldegradation.Some analysts stressedthatthe poor,using theirintimateknowledge of theirimmediate environmentand centuries-oldtraditions,are experts at environmental preservation(Durning1992;Clay1988;Moody 1988;Fay 1989).Othersex- pandedon this pointby arguingthatthe poor,knowingthattheirsurvival depends on carefulhusbandryof the environment,have become vocifer- ous environmentalactivists(Broad1994,813-19;Cheru1992,501).Stilloth- ers argued that while the very poor may fit the Brundtlandmold, the "merelypoor"conservethe environment(Annis1992,11). In the attemptto exoneratethe poor,otheranalystsassertedthatthe richarethe ones responsiblefor environmentaldegradation.Forexample, MadhavGadgilandRamachandraGuhacalledthemostaffluentsixthof the Indian population "omnivores"who are "devouring"the environment. Everyoneelse in Indiaeithertendsthe environmentcarefullyor hasbecome an "environmentalrefugee"in thewakeofthedestructioncreatedby theom-


Africa'senvironmentaldegradationon the wabenzi,the high-consumption urban elite typified by Mercedes-Benz owners (Timberlake1986, 9).3

1. For example, Piers Blaikie coined the phrase "desperate ecocide" to describe situations

where peasants and pastoralists, under extreme pressure to survive, degraded their environ-

ment (1985, 117).

2. As individuals rise out of poverty, for example, they may acquire more cattle or replace

their axe with a chain saw and thus exacerbate overgrazing or deforestation (Reardon and

Vosti 1995, 1500).

3. This argument appears to have little force in Argentina. Except for pastoral activities, all

the important agricultural products of the Argentine interior were produced (at least until the




Othershave fixedthe blameon a farnarrowerelite:the wealthyindustrial- ists, loggers,and landownersalong with theircounterpartsin the govern- mentwho have wroughtenvironmentaldevastationthroughpollutionand rapaciousconsumptionof resources(Broadand Cavanagh1993).Longbe- forethe BrundtlandCommissionwas formed,the dependencyschool had ascribedenvironmentaldegradationin developing countries to export- orientedagriculture,andby implicationto consumersin the industrialized countries,multinationalcorporations,and the compradorelites of the de- veloping countrieswho makethis tradepossible.4 Somecontributionsto the debateprovokedby the BrundtlandCom- missionhave been marredby the attemptto identifya single villain.Most of the accused are probablyguilty as chargedbut often shareculpability with unindictedco-conspirators.In certainsituationsor regions,most of the ecologicaldamage is clearly producedby a single group or perhaps even a single individualor company.Yetas soon as the scope of inquiryis broadenedby examiningotherregionswithinthecountryorotherformsof degradation,the pictureis likely to become complicatedquickly.For ex- ample,GilbertoGallopinet al. have arguedthatthe poor overusethe land because of their poverty,but the rich degrade the land too because their wealthallowsthemto investelsewhereonceresourcesin a particularlocale have been exhausted(1989,377). Since the 1970s,politicalecology has focused on the interconnec- tions between class and the environment,usually without pursuing the

single-villainapproach.5Whilepoliticalecologylacksa coherenttheoretical core,analystsin this traditionlook for the social,historical,and economic rootsof environmentaldegradationratherthanforMalthusianpopulation pressureor mere biologicalprocesses.They often view the state as an in- strumentof one class or anotherratherthan standingabove the class sys- tem.SusannaHechtandAlexanderCockburn,forexample,havedescribed

a complex situation:how impoverished settlers, miners, wealthy cattle ranchers,and loggers and the state throughits sponsorshipof hydroelec-


ters thatmakeiron smeltingpossible)have all played roles in deforesting the Amazon Basin (Hecht and Cockburn1990, chaps. 7-8). Hecht and Cockburnhave explainedthe relativeimportanceof each of these groups

current liberalization of the economy) at considerable expense to urban taxpayers (by way of

subsidies) and to consumers (via tariff protection and regulation)

poorly performing economies of the interior (Sawers 1996, chaps. 4-7). 4. Marc Edelman has presented an interesting critique of this position (1994, 47-48). Most agricultural products of the Argentine interior are grown for the domestic market. Thus the

dependistas'complaint about export-oriented agriculture has little relevance to Argentina. 5. See especially Blaikie and Brookfield (1987), Durham (1979), and Goodman and Redclift (1991). Donald Moore has contributed a useful review of the literature on political ecology (1996, 125-26).

as ways of propping up the


in environmentaldegradationas well as the partsplayedby nativeAmeri- cans,rubbertappers,and nut harvesterswho attemptto defend the forest. Some of the literatureon politicalecology goes beyond identifying groupsthatabuseor protectthe environment,dwelling insteadon the in- teractionandfeedbackamongclasses.Ifa smalleliteseizes controloverthe bulk of a society's resources,those left without resourcesare going to be poor.If thatelite continuouslyre-creates,reproduces,and even heightens the existingpower and incomeinequality,the poor aregoing to stay poor or perhapsbecomeeven poorer(Lele1991,613).Thusthe poormay be the agents of environmentaldegradation,but the ultimateresponsibilitylies with the Well-to-dowhose actions create or maintain poverty.William Durhamand MichaelPainter,for example,have shown thatthe profitsto be gained in ranching,logging, and export-cropproductionproduce de-


thepoorintocompensatoryeffortsto expandproductionon marginalland, intensifyexistingproduction,ordiversifyinto cashcrops.All of thesereac- tions place furtherpressureon the environment,furtherreduce the in- comesof the poor,and reinforcethe downwardspiralof povertyand envi- ronmentaldestruction.Thusthe wealthydegradetheenvironmentdirectly but also indirectlyby worseningthe plight of the poor. Thepurposeof this articleis to analyzewhetherthe wealthyor the poororgroupsin themiddlehaveproducedtheenvironmentaldegradation of the subregionsof theArgentineinterior.Thisresearchalsoseeksevidence on otherissues raisedin the Brundtlanddebate.Do the poor or the not-so- poor in the Argentineinteriormobilizeto protecttheirenvironment,or do they use traditionalskillsto husbandtheirresources?Theapproachused to answerthesequestionslieswithintheboundariesof politicalecologyin that it melds the analysis of historical,political economic, and sociological processesto explaintheenvironmentaldegradationof theArgentineinterior. Iwill not,however,followtheleadof somepoliticalecologistswho stressthe sourceof povertyandthe roleof the richin makingor keepingpeoplepoor, norwill I develop an explicittheoryof the state.One cannotaddressevery interestingquestionatthe sametimeorin a singlejournalarticle. Itwill be usefulto somereadersto beginby explainingthe sharpdif- ferencesbetween the more familiarArgentinepampa and the rest of the country,known as the interior(see map).Thepampais a fertileand well- wateredgrasslandthatextendsin an arcof severalhundredmiles around BuenosAires.Thisrelativelyresilientecosystemhas experienceda modest loss of topsoil and a noticeabledeclinein soil fertilityin some areasdue to continuouscropcultivation.Thesituationhas been exacerbatedby the re- cently introducedpracticeof double cropping.Nevertheless,most of the Argentinepampais not threatenedwith severedegradation.6Muchof the

6. In part of the north central pampa where small and medium-sized

farms have produced




's~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~'I "AIF,- T OCEAN - 1-~~~ -SL, --g-

FIGURE1. Argentina(mapfromtheU.S.StateDepartment,withmodificationsbythe



regionis naturalor improvedpasturethatis regeneratedby the manureof grazingcattle.Muchof the croplandrotateswith pastures.Theflatterrain does not encouragehydraulicerosion,andthe abundantgrassesinhibiteo- lian (wind) erosion.It is nonethelesstrue that aquifersseverely degraded by industrialand human pollution lie beneaththe pampeancities, dense smog hovers over them (especiallyin Cordoba,which is surroundedby low mountains),and some of the most polluted riversin the world flow throughthem (suchas the Riachueloin BuenosAires).Butthe majorcities andmostmanufacturingon thepampaarenarrowlyconcentratedin urban industrialbeltson theeasternand westernfringes.Mostof the agricultural resourcesof the pampahave notbeen severelydegraded. In contrast,the two-thirdsof Argentinathatlies beyond the pampa is composed of fragileecosystems.Most of the interioris semiaridor arid and can supportonly irrigatedcropcultivationor land-extensivepastoral activities.Muchof the scantprecipitationin the aridregionsoccursduring torrentialsummerrainstormsthatsweep away soil andbreachthebanksof irrigationcanals.Thecold climatesof Patagoniaand theAndeanaltiplano discourageagriculture.Whereit rainsenough forrain-fedcropcultivation, agriculturestill faces difficultodds. The fragilesoils in the hills and low mountainsof Misioneserode easily.Low-lyingareasof the Northeastare poorly drainedand often appropriateonly for pasturingcattleand sheep. In the Umbralal Chaco,frequentdroughtand earlyfrostlead to cropfail- uresevery few years.Thusmost of the interioris eithertoo dry,too wet, or toocold.Mostof it is alsoexcessivelysteepandsubjectto erosionorflatand too poorly drained to support crop cultivation.Even before the soil was cultivated,it was poorlystructured,with littleorganicmaterialtobindit to- gether (Barbonaet al. 1988, 97; L. Ledesma 1988, 88; Muller 1984, 40). Decadesof continuoususe-or centuriesin some cases-have furtherun- derminedorganicmaterialandsoil porosity.Theweakeningof thesoils has increasedsusceptibilityto wind and watererosion.Largetractshave been abandonedwith no reasonablehope thatthe landcouldbe restoredto pro- ductiveuse. Theproductivityof almostall the restof these lands has been compromised. An extended searchfor studies addressingthe issue of who pro- duced the environmentaldegradationof the Argentineinteriorturnedup only a single unpublished reportthat attemptedto answer the question

crops (mostly corn) continuously since the end of the nineteenth century, the soil has deteri- orated markedly. Corn yields between 1971 and 1987 fell by nearly two-thirds, causing farm- ers to switch to other crops (Senigagliesi 1991, 34). On the semi-arid fringe of the pampa, overpasturing and failure to rotate crops have produced the same sort of problems that are widespread in the rest of Argentina: degeneration of natural pastures, deterioration of the soil, and erosion (Glave 1991, 70; Viglizzo and Roberto 1991, 95). Generally speaking, how- ever, the ecology of the pampa is much less fragile than that of the rest of the country (Dar- wich 1991).




(GallopinandBarreran.d.).7Asa result,themethodologyemployedin this articleis to approachthe issue indirectlyby asking several questions for eachpartof the interior.Whatpreciselyarethe natureand extentof envi- ronmentaldegradation,in the past and in the present?Who developed each area'sagriculturalresourcesoriginally,and who continuesto exploit those resourcestoday-wealthy ranchers,middle-incomesettlers,impov- erishedsquatters?Whatis knownorcanbe conjecturedaboutthe tendency of these differentgroupsto degradetheirland? Theliteratureon theArgentineinteriorallows one to describeenvi- ronmentaldegradationonly broadly,oftenproducingmorequestionsthan answers.Manyauthorssurveyedin thisarticlehavemadequalitativestate- mentswithoutofferingquantitativedocumentationthatwould allow read- ers to judge the validityof theirconclusions.Forexample,severalauthors writingaboutdifferentpartsof the interiorarguethatdeforestationhas led to reducedrainfall.Such an outcomewould be a plausibleresultof clear- cuttingin semiaridclimates,but no dataarepresentednor is thereany in- dicationthatsuch dataexist.Whendataon otherissues areprovided,they areoftennot comparablewith otherdataon thesameareaorotherregions. Carefuldefinitionsof termsarealso lacking.Forexample,variousauthors use the words severeand moderateto describeenvironmentaldegradation without explaining what the terms mean in those circumstances.Soil degradationcan mean differentthings in deserts, rain forests, irrigated farms,or mountainslopes, yet some sourcesareambiguousaboutthe na- tureof the degradationbeing discussed.The subjectmatterdemandspre- ciseinformationabouttonsof topsoillost,measuresof declinein speciesdi- versityin overgrazedpastures,declineof vegetativecoverin areassubject

to desertification,and kilogramsof salt per hectareof irrigatedsoils. Such


scienceis in its infancyin Argentina.Thecountry'sscientificinfrastructure has thus farbeen unableto producethe kind of dataexpectedfromindus-

trializedcountries,datathatArgentinawill undoubtedlyproducein thefu- ture.At present,however,environmentalknowledge aboutthe Argentine interioris impreciseand incomplete,and the followingaccountnecessarily reflectsthose limitations. A relatedissue is the degreeof confidencethatcanbe placedin the authorscitedin this review.Manyof the studiescitedherewere published

virtuallyabsentfrom the literature.Environmental

7. The most useful sources of information in this search were found in Buenos Aires at the Instituto de Geograffa of the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires, the Instituto Torcuato

Econ6mica para America

Latina as well as the Fundaci6n Mediterrinea in C6rdoba. Several U.S. libraries were also used. Newspapers in Argentina and the United States occasionally publish articles on the subject. Furthermore, the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture supplies useful data and information. I traveled to every province of the interior to interview

business and political leaders, economists, and agronomists.


Tella (where I was investigador visitante), and the Comisi6n


by the widely respectedInstitutoNacionalde TecnologiaAgraria(INTA), the branchof the Secretariade Estadode Agricultura,Ganaderiay Pesca thatcarriesout agriculturalresearchand extensionwork.Althoughmany

of theirstudiessufferfromimprecisionand lackof comparability,they ap- pearto be objectiveif imprecisedescriptionsof the country'senvironmen-


ing stillgreaterconfidencethattheyhaveprovidedanaccurateportrayalof Argentina'senvironmentalproblems. Also frustratingis the lackof useful dataon the economy of the in- terior,specificallydistributionof incomeand landtenure.Somesystematic data exist on land tenure,but the top bracketincludes everything from giantestatesto thesmallspreadsoperatedby thenearpoor.Evenif thedata on largefarmsand rancheswere published,they would be of limited use because wealthy individuals, families, or companies usually own more thanone farmor ranch.One companyin Patagonia,forexample,operates sixty sheep ranches,each entailing a hundred thousand hectares(CIDA 1965,69).Theofficialdatathushide ratherthanrevealwho reallyowns the land. Systematicdata on the distributionof income arenonexistent.Only scattereddatacanbe found on the proportionof householdsfallingbelow the officialArgentinestandardof poverty,and most of it pertainsto urban poverty ratherthan to the ruralpoverty that is the focus of my research. Thispoverty standardis based on such variablesas type of dwelling and educationalstatus of household heads ratherthan on a directmeasureof


To understandhow the interior'sagriculturalresourceshave be- come so degradedand who arethe actorsthatproducedthis degradation, one must examine how the area was originallydeveloped and how the landis presentlybeingused.Thedegradationbegansoon afteragricultural development was initiated and continues to the present day. Cuyo (the present-dayprovincesof Mendoza,SanJuan,and SanLuis)and the North- west were conqueredby the Spanishin the late sixteenthcentury.Native agriculturalistswere incorporatedinto traditionalSpanishcolonial social and economicstructures;nativehuntersand gatherersdisappeared.Agri- culturewas limitedto land-extensivepastoralactivitiesanda littleirrigated cropcultivationclusteredarounda handfulof oases.Threecenturieslater, the economyand the societyhad hardlychanged.Fiveof the nine provin- cial capitalsin this partof Argentinastill had fewer than 8,000residents, and the largesthad only 25,000.Fewerthan 700,000personsinhabitedan areaas largeas all the stateson the U.S.Atlanticcoast.In the early 1860s, the provinceof BuenosAiresunited with the moredeveloped oases of the

8. In contrast to the other sources cited, the works of Raul Dargoltz contain impassioned polemics (see 1980, 1983). I have cited some of his statistics nonetheless, believing that his zeal has not distorted his numbers.




Northwest and Cuyo to form Argentina.In the 1870s, the federal and provincialgovernmentsbeganan aggressiveprogramto develop the agri- culturalresourcesof the Northwestand Cuyothroughimport-substituting "agriculturalization."Theyconnectedthetwo regionsto thepampaby rail- roads and offeredtariffprotectionto the wine and sugar industries,with heavy subsidiesforsugarproduction. The fledgling state quicklyconqueredor claimed territoriesin the northeastandthe souththatdoubledthe size of the interior.Patagoniawas virtuallyunpopulatedat the time,but the new stateimmediatelybeganto sponsorcolonizationschemesthere.Bythe 1880s,the armyhad eliminated the hostilenativepopulationfromthe pampeanfringesin the Campanaal Desierto, clearing the way for development of Patagonia south of the pampa.Irrigatedagriculture,made possibleby a new railroadconnecting the areato the market,developed slowly in the rivervalleys of northern Patagonia.As wheat cultivationand later cattle ranchingtook over the pampaat the end of the nineteenthcentury,shepherdsmoved theirflocks south into Patagonia.By the end of the 1860s,a war with Paraguayended with Argentinaannexingthe southernhalf of Paraguay,until then popu- latedmostlyby huntersandgatherers.Agriculturaldevelopmentcouldnot beginin the easternpartof thenewly acquiredterritoryuntilthe boundary betweenBraziland Argentinawas settled in the late 1890s.In the western

part, the native population was not subdued until

ended all resistancein 1912.In sum, most of the agriculturaldevelopment

of the interiorhas takenplacein the last 80 to 120years. As this brief review indicates,the interiorof Argentinaconsists of many contrastingecosystems,each with strikinglydifferentenvironmen- tal, economic,and social histories.The following section will attemptto placethese disparateenvironments,economicactivities,and historiesinto

a manageablenumberof categories.In roughly descendingorderaccord-

ing to the amount of land affected,these categoriesare logging on the Chaco plain; dryland crop cultivationat the western edge of the Chaco plain;irrigatedagriculturein the Northwest,Cuyo, and Patagonia;small farmagriculturein Misiones;and cottonfarmingin the Northeast.Thear- ticle will conclude by discussing urbanand industrialpollution that has contaminatedpartsof the Argentineinterior,a summaryof findings, and the conclusionssuggestedby this research.9

a military campaign

9. The activity with the broadest environmental impact in the Argentine interior is land- extensive pastoralism in the northern deserts and Patagonia. Overgrazing by cattle, sheep, and goats has severely degraded most of these ecologically fragile.deserts. The excess burden of livestock on the land produced excessive erosion, replacement of edible species of plants by inedible ones, decline in vegetative cover, and possibly a decline in rainfall. In several provinces, moderate to severe erosion affected more than half of the land. In the areas hit hardest, blowing sand dunes engulfed houses and irrigation canals, and giant gullies swept away the earth. In Patagonia sheep herds are a third smaller than their maximum size a half-





While most of the Argentineinteriorwas coveredby desertscrub, substantialforests also grew there. Most of these forests have been cut down since developmentof the interiorbeganin earnestlittlemorethana centuryago.Theyhavebeentakenoverby desertscrub.Since1905,100,000 squaremiles of forestshave disappeared-almost 10 percentof the entire country.Theremaining40,000squaremiles of forestsaremostly inaccessi- ble ordegradedby selectivecuttingthathasled to reversegeneticselection

(Arias 1991, 46).1O

Mostof the forestsin the interiorgrew on the southernChacoplain that stretcheswestward from the ParanaiRiverto the easternedge of the Northwest.11Clear-cuttingof these quebrachoforestsbegan in the 1880sin Catamarca,Santiagodel Estero,and SanLuisand continuedafterthe turn

century ago because the land will no longer support so many animals. In parts of northern Patagonia and Salta, the herd size reached a maximum as early as 1910 or 1920. Unfortu- nately, data on the distribution of landownership do not give a clear sense of who owns these

deserts. One group consists of wealthy ranchers: some estanciasin Patagonia raise a quarter- million sheep (Capitanelli 1988, 724). One company in Patagonia owns six million hectares- more than 23,000 square miles, half again as big as Switzerland (CIDA 1965, 69). Four es- tancias in one department of northeastern Salta share 240,000 hectares or 850 square miles (Reboratti 1989, 25, 32). More than a quarter of La Rioja is covered by royal land grants dat- ing back to the conquest in the sixteenth century (Martinez 1981, 4). In the literature, one can find mention of environmental abuse by the wealthy. For example, cattle ranching spread into eastern Salta and western Chaco and Formosa at the end of the nineteenth century, lead- ing to severely degraded pastures within a few decades. No more than a dozen families in the extremely wealthy elite of Salta owned most of the cattle (Le6n et al. 1985,402-3). In con- trast, most pastoralists in the interior are poor and own only a few head of livestock. A few


scattered mention of the inability of poor pastoralists (many of them squatters) to manage their lands properly. They cannot afford to build fences that might be on someone else's land,

and without proper fencing, pastures cannot be rested to allow the grasses to recover (Amigo 1965,33; Manzanal and Rofman 1989,141-42; Natenzon 1988,177-78). The strongest conclu- sion that can be drawn from the frustratingly fragmentary information available is that both poor and rich have degraded the environment, but the relative importance of each group in this degradation cannot be ascertained. For further information, see Michelena (1988), Caf-

ferata (1988,27-30), Diez et al. (1988,4), Adfmoli et al. (1989,27-30), Reboratti (1989), Lacorte (1991), Jimenez (1989), Biurrun (1988b), Andrade (1989), Prataviera and Michelena (1988), Walshbuguer (1990, 94-96), Barnes et al. (1988, 211), Berra and Braun (1988, 128-29), Braun (1988, 147-50), Penia Zubiate and d'Hiriart (1988, 153), Romfin and Santos (1988), Vessuri (1973, 40-41), Slatta (1980, 37-38), Correa (1991), INTA (1986, 68), Auer and Cappannini (1957), Mendez Casariego (1991), Landriscini (1985), Arias (1991, 46), Federaci6n Lanera Ar- gentina (1986, 15), and Andres et al. (1981). See also Bonnie Tucker, "Will Patagonia's 'Gold' Turn Green?" BuenosAires Herald,25 Sept. 1994, p. 7.

Raul Roccatagliata, "Choices for Arid, Semi-Arid Areas," Buenos Aires Herald, 24 Oct.

1992, 17. 11. The Chaco is a plain stretching from southern Brazil through Paraguay and into north-

central Argentina. One province of Argentina is named Chaco (with no "the").

are nomadic peasants (Bendini and Tsakougmakos 1988,129). The literature makes





of thecenturyin Tucuman,LaRioja,SanJuan,Chaco,andFormosa.12Most of thelandwas sold by the governmentin giganticblocksto richinvestors. In the last quarterof the nineteenthcentury,for example,the provinceof Santiagodel Esterosold 46 million hectaresfor a half-centavoeach. The largestsingle blockof land covered3.8 millionhectares(thesize of Mary- landand Delawarecombined)(Dargoltz1980,137-39,155-56).Fifteenmil- lion hectaresof forestedland in Chacoand FormosaProvinceswere also sold in huge tracts.The largestlandownerin the Northeastwas a timber companyknownas theForestalLand,TimberandRailwayCo.Ltd.,which owned 2.3 millionhectares(an areaone-thirdlargerthanConnecticutand RhodeIslandcombined)and 700kilometersof railroadtracks(Bolsi1985, 46). The Forestalalso served as the principallogging company in Cata- marcaand Santiagodel Estero(Dargoltz1980,137-39, 155-56).The cattle baronsof LaRioja,on findingthe profitabilityof cattleranchingdeclining at the end of the nineteenthcentury,sold off theircattleand beganlogging theirown land(Natenzon1988,149).Mostdeforestationwas carriedoutby majorcompaniesand wealthy landowners,althoughmany small loggers tookthe regrowthforcharcoalor carriedon smalllogging operationsin re- mote areas,a practicethatcontinuestoday. Most of this clear-cutland was alreadysemiarid.Variousanalysts have claimed that deforestationproduced a decline in rainfallthat has slowed or (moreoften)preventedspontaneousregenerationof the forests (Dargoltz1980,1983;Natenzon 1988;Reboratti1985,63;N. Ledesma1988, 206-10;Biurrun1988a,203).Onlya few thousandhectaresof landhavebeen reforested(Andrade1989,287).Becauseof the aridityof the region,it takes a centuryor moreforthe foreststo regenerate,even underthe best of con- ditions (Walschbuguer1990,96). The many cattle,sheep, and goats that browse the saplings growing on largely unfenced land ensure that the forestsdo not regenerate(Leonet al. 1985,403).As the forestcover disap- peared,the grassesand otherplantsthatthrivedin the shadeandhumidity generatedby the forestscould no longersurvive.As the groundcoverwas lost, the soil becamemuch moresusceptibleto erosionby wind and water. Thisoutcomeexacerbatedthe riskof floodingin the areaand hundredsof milesto theeast.13Inthe provinceof Chacoduring1985-1986,forexample,

12. The eastern slopes of the Andean foothills in Patagonia were logged extensively.

Whether the loggers were rich, poor, or in-between is unclear. The regrowth is gathered for firewood, an unlikely activity for the well-to-do. Deforestation has increased wind and water

erosion. According to Garriz, this erosion led to a drier climate that discourages spontaneous reforestation and lessens the flow of irrigation water for downstream farmers (Garriz 1992, 180). In Santiago del Estero, plans are under way to clear-cut the remaining major stands of trees on the Chaco plain. See "Quebracho Woods Come under Threat," BuenosAires Herald, 15 May 1994, p. 4.

13. See Ricardo Bay6n and Patrick Dugan, "Floods, Wetlands, and the Environment,"

Buenos Aires Herald, 30 Jan. 1994, 5. Flooding occurs from the melting snowpack in the


the area flooded was almost as large as West Virginia (Walschbuguer

1990, 98).14

The eastern edge of the Chaco plain is humid enough to permit spontaneousregenerationof the forests,but logging operationstheredid

not necessarilyleave the land ready for otheruses. In easternChacoand


ducing in a few years an impenetrablethicketstretchingfor miles.15One could walk under the branches in a natural quebrachoforest, but the logged-overforestsaredifficultto exploitforpastoralor agriculturalactiv- ities.Giantbulldozersmust now be used to clearthe land. In short,deforestationof the Chacoplain has led to severeenviron- mental degradation.Virtuallyall of it has been produced by the very wealthy.






Thewesternedge of theChacois knownastheUmbralal Chaco(the thresholdof the Chaco).Clear-cuttingof the forests and overgrazingin scrublands had turnedthis areainto a wastelandthat grazed only a few scrawnycattleand goats.In the early1960s,however,increasedrainfallin the regionpermittedan agriculturalboom (Reboratti1985,61;1989,71-75; Jimenez1989,396;Leon 1976,416-17;Prudkin1989,40;N. Ledesma1988, 210;Leon et al. 1985,399-402;Zuccardiet al. 1988,225-29). Since then, nearly two million hectaresof once barrenland have been cleared and sown in grains,beans,and oil seeds. Cropcultivationin the Umbralal Chacohad been initiatedon small farms,butby the 1960s,largefarmsbeganto takeover.Earningsperacrein grains,beans,and oilseeds aresmall,especiallyon poor soil with littlerain anda shortgrowingseason.Itthereforetakesa largefarmto generatemuch income. To compete in the global marketfor these crops, a farmermust achieve the high yields that only mechanizationand heavy pesticide use

Andes. But torrential downpours with the spring melt.

can occur even in the semi-arid zones, often coinciding

14. Another consequence of the deforestation is the spread of Chagas's disease. Insects

known as vinchucas abounded in the forests. Clearing them disrupted the insects' ecology, and they settled in the straw roofs and the cracks in mud walls of houses that are typical of the region. A single house can shelter several thousand vinchucas. When these insects bite humans, they can infest victims with parasites that cause Chagas's disease, an incurable malady that is often fatal (Stillwaggon 1998, chap. 4). In the provinces that were logged in-

tensively, 15 to 25 percent of the army draftees in the early 1980s had contracted Chagas's dis- ease (INDEC 1985, 121). Human migration has now begun to spread the disease to the coun- try's major urban centers.

15. Interview with Esteban Nevares, president of FUNDAPAZ (Fundaci6n para la Paz), 12

Oct. 1993, Buenos Aires.




cangenerate.Evenso, profitsdepend on miningthe soil's fertilityin a few yearsand then moving on to new land thatcosts almostnothing.Until re- cently,manyof thefarmersalsoreceivedsubstantialsubsidiesfromthefed- eralandprovincialgovernments.Thesmallgrowerswerequicklysqueezed out of the market.By the late 1980s,94 percentof the land in the areawas held in farmsof 500hectaresor larger(Reboratti1989,43, 62). The land is cleared with pairs of giant earth-moving machines linkedby chainsthatuprootall vegetation.Only an occasionalwindbreak is left. The highly diverse ecosystem is replacedby monocultivationthat encouragespests, which canbe checkedonly by largedoses of pesticides. Thefarmersused seed varietiesdeveloped fortemperatezones thatarenot resistantto thepests aboundingin a semitropicalclimate.Thusthe amount of pesticidesrequiredis higherthanelsewhere(Reboratti1990,156).Fertil- izer is rarelyused becauseit is cheaperto buy and clearnew land thanto maintainthefertilityof clearedland.An increasein rainfallmadetheboom possible,butrainfallhaswaxed andwaned in theUmbralalChacooverthe decades.Evennow,a cropis lost everyfouryearson averageto droughtor frost(Reboratti1989,44).Theclimatecould againbecometoo dry forcrop cultivationat any time.The growers'attentionis consequentlyfocusedon the very short run, discouragingthe carefulhusbandingof the land's fer- tility.Becauseanylong-runprofitis unlikely,maximizingshort-runreturns by miningthe land is the (individually)rationalcourse. Once the land is cleared,it quicklyloses its residualmoistureand fertility.Waterand wind erosionthen taketheirtoll. Thebeginningof the frost-freeperiodcoincideswith thebeginningof the seasonalrains.Conse- quently,the initialpreparationof the soil forplantingtakesplacewhen the groundis dryandeolianerosionis intense.Whentherainsbegin,hydraulic erosionis severebecausethelandhasjustbeenplowed. Theperiodof max- imum rainfallalso coincideswith the period of minimumplant cover.As the landis mined,cropsthatcangrow in less fertilesoil areplanted,and fi- nallythe landis left as pastureor abandoned.Evenwith therecentamount of rainfall,thelandin thisregioncanbe cultivatedforonly sixto eightyears beforeit is useless foragriculturalpurposes. Thenext sectionwill give some idea of the environmentaldegrada- tion in the Umbralal Chaco.One study in Saltashowed a 50 percentdrop in organicmatterafterthreeto fouryears of bean cultivation,and another showed losses of up to 73percentin nineto elevenyears(CasasandMiche- lena 1988,239-41).A study in Santiagodel Esteromeasureda 50 percent dropin nitrogencontentof the soil aftereightyearsof cultivation.Further- more,the structureof the soil deterioratesaftera few yearsof cultivation. In Tucuman,where the boom began,erosionhas degradedall the agricul- turalland. Severeerosionis a problemon 10 to 16 percentof the land, de- pending on the area.Yieldsof dried beans aresubstantiallylower than in


areasthat have just come under cultivation(Yanesand Gerber1989,42; Reboratti1989, 84). In the part of the Umbral al Chaco found in Salta, 160,000hectaresof agricultural(or formerly agricultural)land showed moderateto severeerosion,and 4,000have been erodedby deep gullies- togethernearlya thirdof the clearedlandin the area(Reboratti1989,83-84; Roman1988,145).Abuseof thesoilwas particularlyacutein theearlyyears of the boom. Morerecently,some producershave taken up crop rotation and contourplowing (Reboratti1989,63). Insum,the agriculturalresourcesof the Umbralal Chacohavebeen severelydegraded.Wealthyfarmershave producedvirtuallyall the envi- ronmentaldegradationin the region.



Manyproblemsplague irrigatedagricultureeverywhere:waterlog- ging, silting,salinizationor alkalinizationof the soil, depletionor saltcon- taminationof subterraneanaquifersbeneaththe irrigatedfields,loss of or- ganic material and other nutrients from continuous cultivation, and erosion.Theseproblemsarealso found in theArgentineinteriorwherever


sons make small irrigatedfarmsmore likely than the largerfarmsto use techniquesand practicesthat abuse the soil. Poor farmersalmost always use gravity-fedirrigationsystemsthatlet waterflow fromirrigationcanals and down the furrows.Thesesystems tend to producewaterlogging,silt- ing, excessiveerosion,and salinizationor alkalinizationof the soil, which lead in turnto a declinein soil fertilitythatis difficultor impossibleto re- verse. This outcome can be prevented or slowed by establishingproper drainageor by sprayingwell water on the fields insteadof using gravity- fed systems.Butdrainagecanals,tubewells, pumps, generatorsorelectric transmissionlines, and sprayers are expensive investments beyond the meansof smallfarmers.Moreover,manyof the poorestfarmersaretenants or sharecropperswith littleincentiveto invest in the land thatis not theirs. Finally,poor farmersmay be less likely to managetheirland to maintain its fertilityin the long term if poverty forcesthem to maximizeoutput in the shortrun.It is plausible (althoughundocumented)that poor farmers do less manuring,fallowing, or plowing under of green manureand use excessive irrigationwater (which is priced lower than its full economic cost everywherein Argentina)(Comisionde TierrasAridas 1978,21-22). Overwateringthe land increasesproductionin the shortrunbut worsens waterlogging,silting,and mineralizationin the long run. Eventhoughmost irrigatedfarmsaresmall(inmuchof the interior, the overwhelmingmajority),largelandownersmay own most of the irri- gated land.In thatcase,even though the poor may abusetheirland more,




the richwould be the main sourceof land degradation.I will examinethe distributionof irrigatedland by farmsize for each of the differentregions of the interior.Argentinahas some 1.4 million hectaresof irrigatedland, almostall of it in the interior.TheNorthwestaccountsfor36 percentof this irrigatedland,Cuyo,42 percent,and Patagonia,18percent.


Modernagriculturaldevelopmentin the interiorbegan only in the 1870s,with the advent of sugar productionin Tucuman.Most sugar was grown on large estates,but a significantfractionwas produced on small farms.A seriesof financialdisastersforcedmany largeestatesto sell land to small farmers.Although some giant estates remain,table 1 shows that the smallerfarmsproducean importantshareof the sugar grown in Tu- cuman:35 percentof the cropis grown on farmsof fewerthan20 hectares. Sugarcultivationspreadnorthwardinto SaltaandJujuyin the early1900s. Fromthebeginning,huge estatesproducedvirtuallyall of the sugargrown in the two provinces.Bythe 1980s,the largestgrowerwas cultivatinghun- dredsof thousandsof hectaresand produced70 percentof the sugarin the

province (Manzanaland Rofman1989,118)

bined, just over half the sugar is produced on large farms.These three provinces,especially Saltaand Jujuy,are also majortobaccogrowers,al- thoughthe acreagein tobaccois a tiny fractionof thelanddevotedto sugar. Thetobaccoin SaltaandJujuyis grownmostlyon smallandmedium-sized farms,and in Tucuman,mostly on small farms.Even less land is devoted to wine grapesthan to tobaccoin the Northwest.Table1 shows that only Saltafarmersgrow a substantialshare (one-third)of the grapes on large farms.Abouta thirdof the cottongrownin Santiagodel Esterois produced on largefarms.Citrusproductionis concentratedin largegroves in Jujuy. Data for other provincesof the Northwest, where citrus productionhas grown rapidlyin recentdecades, or in Jujuysince 1969are not available. Most of the irrigatedland in the Northwest is devoted to sugar,about40 percentof which is grownin Jujuyand Salta.Inthose two provinces,most of the irrigatedland is farmedby the wealthy.In otherpartsof the North- west, largefarmersmaintaina significantpresence,but small or medium- sized growerspredominate. Irrigatedcropcultivationin the Northwesthas degraded90 percent of the cultivatedland in thatregion(VargasGil 1991,128).A thirdof the ir- rigatedlandhasbeen degradedby mineralizationor waterloggingor both (VargasGil 1991,128;Chambouleyron1988,153).InSalta45 percentof the irrigatedlandexhibitsproblemswith salinization,and 14percentwith wa- terlogging;in Tucumanthe comparablefiguresare43 percentand 32 per- cent (Barnes1988,259).In Santiagodel Estero,excessive salinizationand

In the three provincescom-


TABLE1 SizeDistributionofIrrigatedFarmsin theArgentineInterioraccordingto thePercentageofLandDevotedtoDifferentCropsbyFarmSize Percentagein Farms

































Cuyo Mendozaand



Patagonia Alto Valle(1979)g


and tomatoes




and tomatoes

a Manzanaland Rofman(1986,117).

b Percentof crop,not percentof land. cCataniaand Carballo(1985,43-45).

d Yanesand Gerber(1989,26).

alkalinization affect more than 60 percent of the irrigated land (Barnes 1988,

259, 263-64; Irurtia and Cantos 1988, 165). These three provinces for more than 70 percent of the irrigated land in the Northwest.



When the Argentine Republic was formed in the 1860s, most of Cuyo was held in large estates devoted to cattle breeding. As the wine boom began in the 1880s, land suitable for irrigated agriculture was quickly parceled out to Italian and Spanish immigrants who had the skills to pro- duce wine. These immigrants purchased or leased small plots of land or

TABLE1 (continued)




Percentagein Farms


50 ha.

40 ha.

20 ha.

10 ha.





or fewer








































e Crecer (1993, t. 35).




Vessuri (1972, 355). Data refer to the most important cotton area in the province.

Manzanal and Vapnarsky (1987, 54).

Derived from INTA (1986, 73-74).

workedas contratistas(sharecroppers).16Today,some largefarmsproduce grapes,fruit,and vegetables,but most wine growers in Cuyo are still of modestmeans(table1).Two-fifthsof the grapesaregrownin vineyardsof fewer than 10 hectares, rarely enough to support a family above the povertylevel.Only9 percentof thegrapelandis heldin farmsof morethan


InMendozaand SanJuan,over three-fifthsof the irrigatedland are affectedby salinizationandnearlythatmuchby waterlogging(Barnes1988, 259).Someof the saltdepositedby irrigationwateron the fields hasperco-

16. Until the 1970s, nearly half the vine land in Mendoza and over a third of the land in San Juan were farmed by contratistas.


latedintosubterraneanaquifers.All the aquifersnearthe oases of Cuyo are contaminatedwith salt (Chambouleyron1991, 157;Barnes1988,260). In some partsof Mendoza,wells must be drilleddeeperthan600feet to find potablewater.In otherplaces,waterthatis not too saltyfor drinkingor ir- rigationcannotbe found at any depth. Theseaquifersrepresenta sourceof irrigationwater.Almost 20,000 wells operatein Cuyo, whereas irrigationwells are rareelsewhere in Ar- gentina (Berraand Braun1988,124).Nearly half of the irrigatedland in Mendoza now uses well water to supplement the irregularflow of river water,and one-sixthof the irrigatedland drawson well waterexclusively. Thecontaminationof the aquifersnow threatensagriculturein the region. Duringthe 1970s,when wine productionpeaked,waterpumpedout of the aquifersexceeded what was added naturally.Aquifersare renewablere- sources,but in Cuyo theyrenewthemselvesat a glacialpacebecauseof the extremearidityof the region.Irrigatedacreagethus had expandedbeyond the long-termcarryingcapacityof theenvironment.Since1976,a 60percent reductionin grape production(causedby a collapsein demand for wine) has eased pressureon the aquifers(Mendoza,Gobiernode, 1992,70).As wells havepumpedless water,the watertablehasrisen,butthe problemof waterlogginghas worsened.


The first colonistsin Patagoniasettled in the ChubutValleyin the 1860s.Initially,most of the landwas divided intomedium-sizedfarms.But thesubdivisionof landthroughinheritanceandthedecliningfertilityof the

soil impoverishedmany of the farmers.As earlyas 1902,the areawas ex- pelling surplus populationmoving elsewhere to find land. Littleagricul- tureremainsin the ChubutValley(Barnes1988,259).At present80 percent

of thelandin thevalleyis affectedby waterloggingandnearlyhalfby salin-


AftertheCampafiaalDesierto,farmersfollowedthe shepherdswho were moving into Patagoniain substantialnumbers.Farmerssettledin the riverbottomsof northernPatagoniaand grew alfalfaforseed or forexport via the new railroad.Decadeslater,farmersswitchedto treecrops,grapes,

and tomatoes.Fromthe beginning,the federal governmentattemptedto shape the colonizationeffort to keep the croplandfrom falling into the hands of a few richlandlords.Fruitpackersand processorshave acquired

a few very large farms, while the smaller farms have been subdivided

through inheritance.Many farmerssold part of their land to financein- vestments in orchards or vineyards. Thus medium-sized farms have tendedto be replacedby manysmallfarmsand a few largeones.As canbe seen in table 1, in the Alto Vallein 1979(which containsthree-quartersof the irrigatedfarmland in northernPatagonia),only 2 percentof the land




was held in farmsof 100or morehectares(Manzanaland Vapnarsky1987, 54).In all of northernPatagonia,those with fewer than20 hectaresheld 71 percentof the irrigatedland. The dramaticdrop in fruitprices in the last two decades has meant that 10 or 20 hectarescannotkeep a family much abovethe povertylevel. Overthe last few decades,abouthalfthe irrigated farmsin northernPatagoniahavebeen acquiredby the urbanmiddle class (INTA1986,8).Thuswhile most of the irrigatedlandin Patagoniais found on farmstoo smallto supporta family,manyof these smallfarmersarenot poorbecausethey have othersourcesof income. In northernPatagonia,38 percentof the irrigatedland is contami- nated with salt,and 43 percentis waterlogged(derivedfromBarnes1988, 259).Twelvepercentof the irrigatedland hasbeen completelyabandoned, and another28 percentis not currentlycultivated (INTA1986,8, 82). In Patagoniaas a whole, 12percentof the irrigatedland is used forpasturing cattle,one of the few growthactivitiesin the region.It mightbe supposed that in a countrywhere 45 million cattlelive on some of the most fertile rain-fedpasturesin the world, grazinganimalson irrigatedland in a cold desertwould makelittlesense. Butwhereland has deterioratedenough,it cannotbe used profitablyforanythingelse (INTA1986,136-37,141).Yields in apples,the dominantcrop,arestagnant,and those in othercropsarein- creasingonly slowly (Indicadores1991;Bilderand Garriz1992,158). In sum, irrigationhas producedsubstantialdegradationof the agri- culturalresourcesof the interior.InJujuyand Salta,most irrigatedland is foundon very largefarms.Thusthe wealthylandownersand corporations have produced the bulk of the environmentaldegradationthere. In Tu- cuman and Santiagodel Estero,an importantshareof the land is also in largetracts,but it is not clearwhetherthe large or small farmshave pro- duced the environmentaldegradation.In Cuyo, Catamarca,and LaRioja, most of the irrigatedland is divided into smallfarms,and the poor arethe principalprotagonistsin thistaleof environmentaldegradation.InPatago- nia, the wealthy and the very poor have played small roles. Those in be- tween have produced many of the environmentalproblemsin irrigated agriculture.



In the space of one week in 1881, the provincial government of

Corrientes sold most of the province of Misiones-over


hectares(almostas large as the state of Delaware),and the averagewas 70,000hectares.Correntinegovernmentofficialsthoughtthey were selling the entireprovince,but becausethey lackedsurveysor maps of Misiones, they mistakenlyleft the centralpartof the provincein federalhands.Huge propertiesremainin Misiones,butmostof theagriculturallyexploitedland

two million

twenty-nine investors. The largest tract totaled 600,000


is held in small farms.The land was sold in small lots to settlers.At this point,subdivisionthroughinheritancehas turnedmost of the smallfarms into tiny farms.Squattersinvaded the government-ownedland. The gov- ernmentencouragedthe productionof yerbamate on small farmsat vari- ous timesbetweenthe 1930sand the 1980sby prohibitinglargefarmsfrom plantingnew trees (Sawers1996,106-8).Thisban also raisedthe priceof the leaf, allowing small growers to survive. The militarygovernmentin power from 1976to 1983treatedthe small growersmore harshly,and the currentadministrationof PresidentCarlosMenem completelyliberalized industryin 1991.Boththese events causedthe numberof very smallfarms to drop sharply.Even so, small farmshave dominatedagriculturein Mi- sionesthroughoutthe twentiethcentury. The four most important cash crops in Misiones are produced mainlyby farmersbelow the poverty line or barelyabove it. Less than 7


hectares,comparedwith 13 percentin 1935,when the degradationof the provincebegan (Manzanaland Rofman1989,217;Baracatn.d., 4). Two- thirds of the yerba acreage were found on farms with fewer than 25 hectares,and only a fifth was on farmslargerthan 50 hectares.Similarly, abouttwo-fifthsof the tea acreagein 1969were on farmsof 25 hectaresor fewer,and only a thirdwas on farmswith morethan50 hectares.17Subdi- vision of land throughinheritancehas surelyraisedthe proportionof tea grown on small farmssince 1969.A farmof 25 hectareswith only 5 or 10 hectaresin yerbaorteacannotkeepa familyout of poverty.18Furthermore, most of the tobaccoin Misionesis also grown on small plots of land. The average tobaccofarm cultivatedjust over 2 hectaresof tobacco (Catania andCarballo1985,18).Comparabledataon the size distributionof tungor- chardsin Misiones is not available,but narrativesof the crop'sdevelop- ment indicatethatit too was grown predominatelyin small groves (Bolsi 1985,88).19Much of the rest of Misiones croplandnot devoted to these cropsis farmedby subsistenceproducers(Lacorte1991,137). About1.1millionhectares-one-third of thelandin Misiones-have been deforestedand cultivated.Seventypercentof this land (27percentof the province)has now been abandonedbecauseof loss of fertility(Muller 1984,40;Lacorte1991,136).Most of Misionesis coveredwith hills or low mountains.Heavy rainfallcombinedwith the clear-cuttingof steep hill- sides dramaticallyincreases the extent and severity of erosion. Nearly

the yerba mate in 1986 was grown on farms largerthan 400

17. These figures are for the two departments accounting for 70 percent of the province's tea production (Quiroga n.d., 30). 18. Argentine tea generates little revenue because the low-quality tea is mechanically har- vested, unlike the hand-picked high-quality tea grown elsewhere. Yerbamate is a kind of tea made from tree leaves. Unlike other orchard crops, yerba mate produces only modest rev- enues per hectare. 19. Tung oil is used to make oil-based paints.




three-quartersof the land still producingyerbamate and abouthalf of the land in tea and tung have sufferedmoderateto severeerosion(Casaset al.


Many of the poorest farmerslack cleartitle to their land and thus have littleincentiveto preserveits fertility.Abouta quarterof thecultivated land in Misionesis farmedby squatters,most of them illegal immigrants from Brazil.They use slash-and-burncultivationpracticesthat leave the soil barrenand useless within two years.20Onegroup,aftersquattingfora few years, refusedto acceptthe land from the governmentat no charge. They had so abusedthe land that they did not want to own it (Eidt1971, 211).Thesettlingof smallfarmersin Misioneshasthusproducedsevereen- vironmentaldegradation.





Most of Chacoand Formosais used for pastoralpurposes,but the centralthirdof the two provincesis devoted largelyto cropland.Afterthe areawas logged over in the earlypartof the twentiethcentury,cottoncul- tivation spread over the deforestedland. Cotton peaked at mid-century, when 80 percentof the cultivatedland in the areawas devoted to the crop. By the 1960s,the expansion of the domestic textile industry had run its course, and the internationalcotton marketsoured. Many of the larger farmsturnedto soy, sorghum,or sunflowers,but small farmerscould not affordto abandoncottonbecauseit generatedso much more revenueper hectarethan alternativecrops. The cotton market deterioratedsteadily, subdivisionthroughinheritancecontinued,andby the early1980s,most of the cotton growerswere living below or barelyabove the poverty line. In Chaco,forexample,63 percentof the farmswere minifundios(smallerthan 20hectares)in 1982,and86percentof thefarmshad fewerthan50hectares. Cottonfarmswith morethan200hectarescultivatedless than6 percentof the land (Besiland Gelmann.d., 11;Manzanaland Rofman1989,86). Ten years later,fallingcottonprices,terriblefloods, and the arrivalof the boll weevil had driven many small producersoff the land.A growing fraction of thecottonwas grownon medium-sizedfarms(CFIJune1993,33).InFor- mosa (which grew only a quarteras much cottonas Chaco),the minifun- dios were farmoreprominent,producing60 percentof the crop. Longbeforethe BrundtlandCommissionpopularizedthe notion,a numberof Argentinesociologistsand economistshad arguedthatthe poor cottonfarmersof Chacoand Formosaabused theirland more than those who werenot poor(ArchettiandStolen1975,211;Benenciaand Forni1986, 15;Manzanaland Rofman 1989,67; VargasGil 1991, 124;Rofman1986, 44-45).Theirpovertypreventsthemfrombuyingthe expensiveequipment

20. Carmen Pignotti, "Misiones Rainforest Dwindling," BuenosAiresHerald,6 Nov. 1994, p. 4.


neededto applyfertilizer,disallowsthepossibilityof fallowingtheirlandor rotatingcropswith legumes (whichcould often doubleyields), and deters them fromswitchingto cropssuch as soy thatdo not depletethe soil's fer- tilityas rapidly(Bermuidezet al. 1965,2). Furthermore,most of the poorest farmersaresquattingon governmentland.Theyhaveneitherincentivetoin- vest in thelandnorcollateralon whichto borrowforinvestment.21Gallopin et al. (1989)have suggestedthatbothrichand poorfarmersplay prominent rolesin the environmentaldegradationof Chacoprovince.Theyarguethat the largefarmers,especiallycorporations,"aremotivatedto maximiizeprof- its atthe expenseof sustainabilitysincetheircapitalcanbe divertedto new investmentsonce a resourceis exhausted"(Gallopinet al. 1989,377).Ac- cordingto theirargument,middle-sizedfarmershavebotha stakein there- sourceson which they rely to producetheirincomeand the abilityto sus- tainthem.Neitherof theseassertionsaboutthetendencyof the richorpoor to abusethe environmentis supportedby carefulquantitativeresearch. Degradationof the area'sagriculturalresourcesis widespread.For example,loss of organicmaterialin the soil of continuouslycultivatedland is on the orderof 50 percentand reached80 percentin some areasas early as 25 yearsago (Archettiand Stolen1974,160;Lacorte1991,143).Saliniza- tion, waterlogging,cementation,and excessive erosionof the soil are fre- quent.Two-fifthsof Formosaand 29 percentof Chacohavebeen erodedto a moderateor intensedegree(Barbonaet al. 1988,96;L.Ledesma1988,84; Lacorte1991,143).22Accordingto most observers,the poor are the most likelyto degradetheirland.Butgiven the extentof environmentaldeterio- rationandtheproportionof thelandactuallyfarmedby thepoor,it is likely thatmiddle- and upper-incomefarmershave also played an importantal- though secondaryrolein destroyingthe area'sagriculturalresources.




MostArgentineindustryoperateson the pampa.Industryin the in-

21. In 1938 when cotton cultivation was beginning to ruin the provinces of Chaco and For-

mosa, only 11 percent of the land was farmed by the owner. Twenty-eight percent of the cot-

ton land was rented. The rest belonged

I have been unable to locate more recent data. The government granted clear title to some of

the better-off cotton farmers after 1976, and many of the poorest farmers have left. Conse-

quently, the proportion of persons farming government land has almost surely declined. 22. In the cotton-growing areas of the Northeast, the environment has responded to abuse with a plague of insects. See Argentine Cotton Chamber, "Boll Weevil Threatens Cotton Busi-

ness," BuenosAires Herald,4 Jan. 1992, p. 14; and CFI (1993, 2). Monocultivation

ished farmers has invited boll weevils into the region. These pests arrived in Argentina in 1993. They had already ravaged crops in neighboring Paraguay and Brazil, and sanitary prac- tices that would have delayed or stopped their spread into Argentina were not used. Fight- ing these pests will exacerbate the environmental decline of the region because the only way to eradicate boll weevils is by repeated doses (as many as forty a year) of a strong pesticide.

to the government (Brodersohn and Slutzky 1978,222).

by impover-




teriorconsistsmostly of plantsthat processagriculturalproductssuch as sugarcane,pulpwood, and wine grapes.23Theinterioralso containspetro- leum wells, refineries,mines,and smelters.Mostof these industrialactivi- ties have producedconsiderablepollutionin theirimmediateenvironsas well as downstreamand downwind. Vasttractsof the interior,however, have no manufacturingor extractiveindustriesand thus remainfreeof in- dustrialpollution. Quantitativemeasuresof industrialpollutionarenot available,but several articles have described the problem in general terms. Factories and petroleumrefineriesin the interiorhave contaminatedgroundwater and subterraneanaquiferswith heavy metals (boron,cadmium,mercury, and lead) and with synthetictoxins (biphenyls,PCBs,and petroleumby-


and Forni1986,12;Lacorte1991,139-46;INTA1986,88-91;Manzanaland Rofman1989,137).Dischargefromsugarand pulp mills of organicwastes with a high biologicaldemand for oxygen has producedalgal contamina- tion and reducedthe abilityof streamsand riversto supportaquaticlife. Thebuildup of nitrogenand phosphoroushas encouragedeutrophication of reservoirsand lakesfromwhich irrigationwateris drawn.24Theresult- ing decline in quantityand qualityof irrigationwater prejudicesagricul- ture.Inaddition,the petroleumindustryin Salta,Mendoza,and Patagonia hasclearedmuchlandforitsoperations,producingsoil erosionthatfurther degrades water quality in the region (Barnes1988,264). Refiningopera- tions have also contributedto airpollutionas well as surfaceand subsur-


tion to sewage or solid waste disposalhas fouled the environment.In only one exampleof the contaminationof the interiorby industrialand agricul- turalsources,the RioUruguayalongthe easternborderof Misionesis now almostdevoid of fish becauseof pollution(Lacorteet al. 1991,139).

Almost all the interior'sindustryis owned eitherby the local elite, investorsin BuenosAires,a few multinationalcorporations,or the federal government(untilthe recentwave of privatization).Wealthyfactoryown- ers and state-operatedenterpriseshave thus producednearlyall the envi- ronmentalcontaminationof the interiorby industrialwastes. In addition to industrialeffluents,agriculturalrunoffpollutes the environmentfurther.Pesticideandfertilizerrunoffscomefromfarmsof all sizes. Smallerfarmerscannotaffordto use largequantitiesof agricultural chemicalsor the machineryto spreadthem. In some partsof the interior, mostof thecroplandis cultivatedby thepoor,buttheyarethemajorsource

23. The most important exceptions are the environs of the provincial capitals of Mendoza

and San Luis.

24. With eutrophication, a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients that stimu-

late the growth of aquatic plant life, which usually results in the depletion of dissolved oxygen.


of this formof pollutioneven though they use less fertilizerand pesticide perhectarethando largerfarms.InMisiones,forexample,the mainsource of pesticiderunoffis tobaccoand yerbamatecultivation,bothof which are dominatedby smallgrowers.




Any attemptto demonstratethata singleclasshasproducedmostof the environmentaldegradationof the Argentineinterioris not supported by the evidence presentedin this investigation.Most of the populationin most of the ruralinteriorfits the classicBrundtlandmold of those who are too poor today to affordthe luxuryof caringaboutthe environmentof to- morrow.In some partsof the interior,the poor have producedmost of the environmentaldegradation.Thesegroupsinclude growersof yerbamate, tea, tobacco,and tung as well as subsistencesquattersin Misiones,cotton growersin Chacoand Formosa,and farmersusing irrigatedland in Cuyo andpartsof theNorthwest.At thesametime,muchof theinterioris owned by a wealthyfew,and they have producedsome of the worstenvironmen- tal devastationin the Argentineinterior.Irrigatedagriculturein Saltaand Jujuy,logging on the Chacoplain, and drylandfarmingin the Umbralal Chacohave been dominatedby the very wealthy,and all these activities have severelydegradedthe environment.In still otherareasand activities, all classeshave played significantrolesin the environmentaldegradation. Theclearestexampleis irrigatedagriculturein Patagonia. My searchof theliteratureon agricultureandtheenvironmentin the Argentineinteriorhas uncoveredno evidence suggesting that any of the pooragriculturalistsof theinteriorareenvironmentalactivistswho defend the environmentbecause they know their livelihood depends on it. Per- haps the ruralpoorwould have been morelikelyto organizeto protectthe environmentwithout the militarygovernment'sruthless suppressionof theirorganizationsbetween1976and 1983,whichleftthemwith littlevoice on any issue.25Yeteven beforethe late 1970s,no politicalorganizinghad occurredamong the poor aroundenvironmentalissues, and no evidence suggeststhatorganizingwould have occurredafter1976if the government had not suppressed their organizations.In other parts of the world, the poor who act politicallyto defend their land from degradationtypically protestthe activitiesof wealthy loggers,ranchers,landlords,and industri- alists or largestate-sponsoredinstitutionsthatencroachon theirland and

25. Beginning at the end of 1993, the urban lower and middle classes of the interior began rioting sporadically to protest macroeconomic austerity measures. But the rural poor have been vocal on only a few occasions, and none of their protests focused on the environment. In one case, poor inhabitants of the interior recently welcomed the establishment of a toxic waste dump in their neighborhood as a source of income.




prejudicetheirsurvival.In the Argentineinterior,in contrast,the environ- mentin which most of the poor live and work had alreadybeen degraded by deforestationand overgrazingbeforethey settled thereor by the poor themselves afterthey arrived.Contaminationof the environmentby in- dustrialor extractiveactivitiesaccountsfor a small part of the environ- mental degradationof the interiorand has not affectedmost of the poor. Thus even if the poor in the interiorwere inclined toward activism, the wealthy arenot an obvious targetforenvironmentalprotestby the poor. Furthermore,one cannotcharacterizemost poor agriculturalistsin the Argentineinterioras a groupthatuses ancienttraditionsand intimate

knowledge of their surroundingsto from the Northwest,the interiorwas

centuryby migrantsfrom ecologicallydissimilarparts of Argentinaand fromEurope,oftenby settlerswho hadlittlenotionof how to cultivatetheir new cropsin their new surroundings.Examplesare the Polish settlersin Misioneswho startedgrowingtung and tea,cropsneverbeforecultivated in Argentinaor Poland.In much of the interior,seriousagriculturaldevel- opment began only early in the twentieth century.Frequently,environ- mentaldeteriorationcommencedas soon as the land was settled.The set- tlers'lack of experiencewith theirhostile environmentsurely heightened the degree of environmentalabuse. Moreover,the squatterswho are still using slash-and-burnmethods to denude Misiones are employing tradi- tionalfarmingmethodsthatdestroyratherthanhusbandthe environment. Thispoint does not contradictthe findingthatthe poorareecology experts in other settings. The present researchdemonstratesinstead the hetero- geneityof povertyand the environmentsin which the poorlive. Beforedegradationof the environmentcanbe slowed or reversed,it must firstbe determinedwho has done the degradingand why. This re- searchhasdescribedthewide varietyof actorsandprocessesinvolvedin the environmentaldegradationof the Argentineinterior.It complementsthe workof many otherinvestigatorswho have studied environmentaldegra- dationin otherpartsof