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Argentina: NGOs push against Milei's attack on the environment

January 23, 2024
tags:#Argentina, #conservation, #mining, #environmental protection
by:Cecilia Fernández Castañón
In his first month in office, Argentinian President Javier Milei issued a decree and introduced a bill aimed at restructuring the state and eliminating protections for forests and glaciers. Over 100 NGOs have voiced opposition to these measures and are actively working to prevent their implementation.

Several weeks after taking office as President of Argentina on 10 December 2023, Javier Milei pushed through two major reforms of the state.

The first was the Decree of Necessity and Urgency (DNU) 70/2023, a document containing more than 300 articles that modify and repeal hundreds of laws, citing the need to solve the country's severe economic crisis.

The second bill, titled "Bases and Points of Departure for the Freedom of Argentines," is currently under discussion in extraordinary sessions of the National Congress. This bill is even more ambitious, comprising over 600 articles and declaring a public emergency, thus granting extensive powers to the president.

Both initiatives have sparked a great deal of controversy in various sectors, as they imply profound economic, financial, energy, health, administrative and social changes. In the environmental sector, alarm bells are ringing, particularly due to concerns that the proposed reforms could significantly roll back the legislative progress made in Argentina over the past few years. Achieving this progress required extensive effort, parliamentary debate and consensus-building among multiple social actors.

More than 100 NGOs have signed a document urging the Chamber of Deputies not to approve these proposals, which they believe are in direct conflict with Argentina's legal principles, as well as with national and international regulations enforced in the country. They fear the proposals could adversely impact the economic and productive outcomes of various socio-economic activities, potentially jeopardising the intended benefits.

Additionally, there is a serious concern about the potential negative impact on Argentina's ability to fulfill its commitments in multilateral environmental forums.

As the legislative debate continues, President Milei has once again made clear his opposition to the country's environmental agenda. Speaking at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum on 17 January, he stated, "another of the conflicts that socialists raise is that of man versus nature. They argue that human beings damage the planet and that it must be protected at all costs."

Argentine Land in foreign hands

Although the mega-decree promoted by Milei's government is already in force in Argentina, many legal experts have questioned its validity and consider it unconstitutional.

On the basis of this argument, a court ruling earlier this month halted the labour reform contained in the decree, which, among other provisions, restricted the right to strike, removed sanctions for irregular contracts, authorised working hours of up to 12 hours per day, increased the probationary period and allowed alterations to wages.

Meanwhile, other valuable laws in the country are no longer in force. One of them is Law No. 26,737, better known as the Land Law, which established the protection of the national domain on the ownership, possession or tenure of rural land.

"Thirteen years ago, when we promoted this law, the main concern was the growing demand for food as a result of global population growth," Florencia Gomez, former Secretary for Environmental Policy in Natural Resources at the National Ministry of the Environment, told FairPlanet. 

"Today, we have to add to this problem the effects of climate change, which are becoming more and more serious and which we are experiencing first hand, with increasingly frequent weather disasters.

"This shows us that the availability of natural resources is becoming more and more limited and that our countries are the reservoir of fresh water and minerals, which are necessary for equitable national development and which will become scarce in the not too distant future."

Gomez, a lawyer specialising in rural land, was one of the co-authors of the Land Law passed in 2011, and was involved in the creation of the National Rural Land Registry.

"This law is much more necessary now than when it was passed. Eliminating it would be a serious mistake and would allow foreign capital to acquire and manage rural land, cutting off access to land for thousands of Argentines," she said.

The Land Law imposed a number of restrictions on the sale of land to foreigners, including a cap of 15 per cent of the total area at the national, provincial and sub-provincial levels. In addition, foreigners of the same nationality could not acquire more than 30 per cent of the land. It also prevented the sale of land containing large and permanent bodies of water.

According to Gomez, one of the most important contributions made by this law is the transparency and accessibility of information about who owns the land.

"Although water bodies are public property, in Argentina we have the case of the British businessman Joe Lewis, who bought the land around a lake in Patagonia and is now restricting access to it, thus appropriating a natural resource," she said.

Despite the legal gap created by President Milei's decree, Gomez does not anticipate massive purchases of Argentine land by foreign capital in the short term.

"Our country is in a moment of great instability and legal uncertainty, and this is not attractive to investors," she added.

Investments vs. environmental protection

The bill currently being debated in Congress proposes to repeal two fundamental laws that were passed in recent years: the Forest Protection Law (Law 26.631 of 2007) and the Glaciers Law (Law 23.639 of 2010).

Both bills set minimum protection budgets and have sparked significant environmental struggles, involving not only the entire socio-environmental movement, with territorial assemblies in different provinces and environmental NGOs, but also broad sectors of society. The collective defence is aimed at protecting environments threatened by the expansion of mega-mining and preserving forests, which face devastation from deforestation and the encroachment of the agro-industrial frontier.

"There is a major economic contradiction in the package of measures being promoted by the Milei government," Andrés Napoli, president of the Foundation for Environment and Natural Resources (FARN), told FairPlanet.

"This is the main aspect that concerns this government, but they don't take into account that if environmental protection collapses, market barriers will rise. No country will be willing to accept products that come from deforestation or pollution. Companies are increasingly setting up departments to check the environmental standards of their suppliers."

He added, "We have already seen this in Brazil during the Bolsonaro government, when forest controls were suspended, deforestation increased and agricultural markets were closed."

Napoli was one of the speakers at the plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies where the law was debated. In his speech, he said he was representing more than 100 NGOs that rejected the initiative and criticised the reform of the law on the control of burning, which includes a new definition that allows burning for productive purposes.

"Many of the devastating fires we have suffered in recent years, such as the one in the province of Corrientes, were caused by these uncontrolled burns," he stated. 

If the law goes ahead and is approved, Napoli warned that conflicts could erupt in unprotected areas.

"We are working so that this does not happen. For the first time in many years, the entire environmental sector is united and converging on the same goal," he said.

"Other sectors that are seriously affected by the policies promoted by this government, such as science or universities, are also joining in. This is going to be much more transcendent and we are all together in the same wave that we do not yet have the dimension of how far it can go."

Picture by Gustavo Sánchez

Article written by:
Cecilia Fernández Castañón
Embed from Getty Images
Javier Milei pushed through two major reforms of the state. The first was the Decree of Necessity and Urgency (DNU) 70/2023, a document with more than 300 articles that modified and repealed hundreds of laws, claiming the need to solve the country's severe economic crisis.
Embed from Getty Images
The second was a bill entitled "Bases and Points of Departure for the Freedom of Argentines", which is being debated in extraordinary sessions of the National Congress and is even more ambitious, since it contains more than 600 articles and declares a public emergency, granting super powers to the president.
Florencia Gomez, former Secretary for Environmental Policy in Natural Resources at the National Ministry of the Environment.
Florencia Gomez, former Secretary for Environmental Policy in Natural Resources at the National Ministry of the Environment.
Andrés Napoli, president of the Foundation for Environment and Natural Resources (FARN).
Andrés Napoli, president of the Foundation for Environment and Natural Resources (FARN).