GRAIN | 25 January 2011
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. 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.
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. 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
RuralGrupo 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.” 
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. 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.” 
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: 
“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.”
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.”
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 [email protected])
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.
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
11 Argentina: La iglesia rionegrina planteó sus críticas al proyecto de sojización con China, 25-12-.2010, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/17922