Argentina’s land laws stifle sustainable agriculture

The laws have meant increasingly concentrated land ownership and leasing to profit-oriented companies who care little for long-term sustainability
<p>Argentina’s land laws encourage the use of chemical fertilisers to maximise short-term profits (Image: Alamy)</p>

Argentina’s land laws encourage the use of chemical fertilisers to maximise short-term profits (Image: Alamy)

Fewer and fewer farmers grow cereals such as maize or legumes like soy in Argentina. Though overall exports are at historic highs, over the past three decades Argentina’s land laws have allowed land to become concentrated in fewer hands and dedicated to the production of a smaller range of crops, census data shows.

The combination of intensive agrochemical use, genetically modified seeds and direct sowing without a plough has reduced Argentina’s agricultural diversity. The country has largely moved from farms that combine crop cultivation and livestock farming to farms that churn out two main monocultures for export: soy and maize. 

The roots of this shift, which has sped up in recent years, are attributable to Argentina’s 1948 land tenure law, modified in 1980 during the military dictatorship, which permits short leases of two years, encouraging quick returns and discouraging long-term environmental planning. 


of farming companies control 40% of Argentina’s productive land

According to preliminary data from the 2018 Agricultural Census, 20% of farmers nationwide work rented land, up from 10% in 2002. The proportion rises sharply in the provinces of Córdoba, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, Argentina’s agricultural heartland. 

Current legislation allows tenants to work land without any consideration for soil conservation, crop rotation or limits on chemical use. Nor does it incorporate the environmental protection criteria that appears in the nation’s constitution, amended in 1994.

Increasing crop concentration

Last year, Argentina produced a total of 120 million tonnes of cereals and legumes on 31 million hectares. This included 52 million tonnes of maize on 7 million hectares, 51 million tonnes of soy on 17 million hectares and 7 million tonnes of wheat on 7 million hectares. 

Most Argentine grains are exported. In the first half of 2020, exports from the agriculture sector were worth US$20 billion, equivalent to 70% of the value of all goods that Argentina exports. The Pampas region accounted for 94% of foreign sales, according to a report by the agricultural foundation FADA. 

China buys some 7 million tonnes of Argentina’s soy, worth around $US2 billion. Vietnam is the main importer of maize and Brazil of wheat. 

Provisional data from the latest agricultural census provides a clearer picture of who sells. There are 236,000 farms working 161 million hectares in the agriculture and forestry sectors.

The census also reveals another phenomenon. Farms are decreasing in number but growing in size. While in the 2002 census there were 333,000 farms, in 2018 there were 250,000. Just 1% of companies (2,500) control 40% of the country’s productive land.

Over the last 30 years, 170,000 productive units have been lost in the Argentine countryside. 

Argentina’s land laws: agricultural capitalism

According to the census, 69% of Argentina’s farms are managed by their owners, while 19% of fields are rented. In the main agricultural provinces, this changes drastically.

In Córdoba province to the north, 23% of farms were leased in 2002 but this figure jumped to 44% in 2018. In Buenos Aires province approximately one-third of farms are leased, some 9 million hectares of the total 24 million.

“The picture that we see in the Pampas region since 1988 is the increasing concentration of land with important percentages of rented plots. There are more and more pools of land being rented out,” said Marisa Gonella, an agricultural engineer at the National University of Rosario. 

Companies like Los Grobo, Cazanave y Asociados or El Tejar have emerged in the last 20 years as important players in Argentina’s large-scale land-leasing business. 

According to Gonella, economic globalisation has allowed the entry of capital flows that overlook the region’s history of agriculture, disrupting producers who are pressured to rent.

Omar Príncipe, a small-scale producer and former president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation (FAA), said that 40% of small- and medium-sized producers have disappeared since the mid-1980s, dropping “a social bomb that nobody talks about”. He added that the average land area dedicated to production has risen by almost 45%, with a similar increase in the number of rented fields. 

What is land, just capital or a web of life?
Patricia Propersi

“We have a model of [land] concentration that is growing exponentially and went from producing 46 million tonnes to 130 million tonnes in 30 years. We have growth without development,” Príncipe said.

The FAA, one of Argentina’s four major rural development organisations, has called for a new leasing law that would provide tax and credit incentives and improved negotiating conditions for small- and medium-scale producers, tackling the dominance of large commodity-producing companies.

Argentina’s land laws pit short-termism against sustainability

Working the land with no reason to ensure its long-term health has serious social and environmental consequences. These include increased soil erosion, biodiversity loss, excessive chemical use, and the end of the traditional family farmer.

Soil erosion is one of the most serious. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a recent report that Argentine soil, which is of course the foundation of farming, does not receive sufficient care and “rather the opposite”. 

The agency estimates that some 50 million hectares are affected by moderate or severe water or wind erosion, and that economic losses due to soil degradation amount to around US$700 million per year. Erosion is particularly severe in the Pampa Ondulada sub-region that consists of the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Córdoba, Argentina’s most fertile plain.

In 1988, soybeans occupied 4.6 million hectares and yielded 6.5 million tonnes. By 2015 this had risen to 20 million hectares producing 60 million tonnes, according to the Agrarian Federation. For Príncipe, it is the current agricultural model that encourages monoculture.

“A leasing law would be key to protecting the soil, since one-year contracts are designed for sowing pools and investment funds that come and go without sustainability criteria. With longer leases there can be more diversification,” said Príncipe. 

The rural unionist calls for new legislation with five-year leases since they would encourage a greater diversity of production. “We have to think about sustainable land use, because this model, tied to a technological package that forces us to use more agrochemicals, causes erosion, health problems and loss of native forest and pastureland,” he said.

Patricia Propersi, an agronomist, says Argentina’s agro-industrial model “has increasingly higher socio-environmental costs” because capital injections and the accumulation of profits “have been put above any other objective”.

“What is land, just capital or a web of life? Do we prioritise investment funds or farmers? We are victims of a logic that since the 19th century has prioritised the sector as a provider of foreign exchange and a producer of commodities,” she added.

Lack of legislation

For Propersi, the current tenant model dates back to 1970 when monoculture, agrochemicals and GM seeds were introduced to Argentina. Given the laws on renting, she said it is understandable that there are no rules specifying what agricultural practices can be carried out in rented lands. 

Gonella agrees: “Leasing is a peculiarity of the Argentine model. Attempts to change the law have not progressed and most contracts are still made between the parties themselves, often even orally.”

In the last 12 years, 14 attempts to modify the law on leases were presented but were not successful. The last came in 2008, with a project that sought to extend contracts to five years, give greater protection to small producers and avoid land grabbing for investors. 

For Príncipe, the economic interests behind the current production model explains the failure to overturn laws.

“The fact that no progress has been made on a new law shows the State’s inability to regulate land tenure and access. If there is one thing we are not talking about in Argentina, it is this,” he said.

Seeking sustainable alternatives

Some “rebels” are trying to employ sustainable modes of production, such as at the Casilda Agro-ecological Project (PACA), south of Santa Fe province, in which veterinarian and environmentalist Eduardo Spiaggi participates.

“We rented 10 hectares from a neighbour to make agro-ecological wheat and added 11 hectares of our own,” Spiaggi said. “The neighbour gives us his land, we work it and give him part of our production to pay for rent.”

In addition to wheat, PACA produces other crops on a very small scale, such as soybeans, maize, oats and rye. One part is dedicated to horticultural production and fruit trees. Another accommodates cattle, sheep and pig farming. Poultry are also raised.

The farm is located in the core area of the industrial agriculture model, where land is concentrated in the hands of big companies and much of the traditional farm worker housing has been abandoned.

“There is a double exploitation of the fields, by the owner and by those who rent them to work them. Both parties must make a profit in order to make ends meet in a short period of time,” Spiaggi said. He believes that an entire rethink of Argentina’s agro-industrial model is required and that while it might help, a new law to address short-term land leasing is no silver bullet. “It is not the fundamental solution,” he said. 

This article was first published by Dialogo Chino.