World Rainforest Movement

Argentina: Wichi and Guarani women raise their voices against deforestation linked to soybean expansion

According to a research paper produced by Daniel Slutzky from the Conicet Centre for Urban and Regional Studies quoted by journalist Claudio Scaletta (1), in the Province of Salta “until the mid nineties sugar cane, tobacco and citrus, together with kidney beans were the traditional crops.” Later the kidney bean cycle shrunk because of the rise of the soybean. Today this crop occupies over fifty percent of the cultivated land in the Province and continues to expand.”

Along with the soybean came deforestation. It has been estimated that between 1988 and the present, 2.3 million hectares were deforested. According to the article, “although indiscriminate felling started with kidney bean crops, it is now part of the soybean problem.”

In addition to deforestation, soybean also brought land concentration, unemployment and eviction. “The increasing prices of oilseeds and new technologies have made many marginal areas more profitable. The price of land and land renting was low in relation to potential profitability, sufficiently low to absorb the extra cost of logging and freight to ports. Due to soybean requirements regarding scale and facilities, these new opportunities were only accessible to medium and large-scale farmers. In the year 2000, 95 thousand hectares were in the hands of 19 farm operators and one of these alone possessed 25,000 hectares. Concentration of land coexisted with the eviction of workers. Technological modernization led to a drastic cut in labour requirements, dropping from 2.5 working days per hectare to 0.5, an unprecedented increase in work productivity. The counterpart was a significant migration of the rural population and the virtual disappearance of small villages. The traditional linking between large farm operators and small farmers, many of them indigenous farmers, was broken. Small peasant subsistence farmers started finding serious difficulties in complementing their income with salaries from the seasonal demand for cane and bean harvesting, activities that lost relative importance. To the situation of small farmers evicted from their lands is added that of the indigenous peoples, such as the Wichi. Some emigrated to the suburbs of Tartagal and Embarcación and the City of Salta. Others found themselves cornered in shrinking forests.”

In this context, on 17 December 2008, 18 indigenous Wichi and Guarani communities from Salta filed a precautionary measure before the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation demanding the suspension of the numerous logging authorizations issued by the provincial Government. Through the Environmental Secretariat, the Government had endorsed requests for clear felling and logging on a total of 807,509 hectares of forest. In spite of complaints about pollution, diseases and natural disasters caused by the depredation of native forests and the indigenous communities’ demand to have their ancestral lands restored, the Court did not issue any definitive verdict. At the end of December 2008, it ordered the temporary suspension of clear felling and logging of native forests, authorized during the last quarter of 2007, until an environmental impact assessment was made, which should be ready within 90 days.

On 26 March 2009 the Court extended the suspension, while awaiting the provincial report. In spite of this verdict, deforestation continued, the companies continued to advance on the territories claimed by the communities and on the native forest. 

Faced by the imminent final verdict of the Court, 20 Wichi and Guarani women took the decision to make themselves heard. Thus, at the end of July they travelled from Salta to the capital city, as they explained “for US, WITHOUT INTERMEDIARIES, to take the claims to the places where the decisions on our lives are taken, that is why we are going to Buenos Aires.” So far, the response to their claims, presented before the provincial municipalities, has only been more repression, exclusion and discrimination.

These women, who are determined to “take up the arms of awareness,” have announced that they do not want to be represented by intermediary organizations “be they NGOs or others.” “We want to shout our claims clearly: for our lands and our territories that are being devastated by clear felling, because the ban on felling the native forest is not being complied with.” “We are in a state of poverty which we did not seek, but that is the consequence of the dehumanized way people on the other side behave who, thought their money and power, have overwhelmed us and made other poor brothers and sisters confront us by invading our lands and depriving us of our territory.” 

They speak about the diseases that come with clear felling, of leishmaniasis which they are unable to defend themselves against because they do not know about it. “Nobody comes here to teach us, nobody comes to train us and we know that no indigenous people are involved in preparing health projects and programmes.” (2)

In Buenos Aires, the group of women presented a petition to a number of institutions and organizations, among which the Supreme Court, the Presidency of the Nation, the Nation’s Peoples Defence Office, the Chamber of Deputies, Amnesty International, the American Association of Jurists and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights.

However, there is no truce: on 14 August the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation decided euphemistically to “allow the execution of tasks for forest management in the Departments of San Martin, Oran and Santa Victoria.” This implies that deforestation will be allowed to continue in the north of Salta, rejecting the demands of the indigenous communities. 

The women stated that the response they were given was that “perhaps what we are denouncing is “Selective Felling” or “Reforestation”. After looking at the photos and the proof of all we had submitted, they told us that we could follow the example of our brothers and sisters from the South who are the protectors of national parks!!!!! But of course, provided we have the ownership deeds!!! OUTRAGEOUS!!!! They neither gave us a reply nor an alternative.” (3)

As they stated “we are suffering at this time from what we have suffered all our lives: dispossession. If before they used to fight us with Winchesters, Remingtons and Mausers, now it is with this soybean model.”

(1) “Soja y bosques nativos”, Claudio Scaletta, page 12,
(2) “Para ser vistas y escuchadas. Mujeres de la comunidad wichí “Honat Le’ Les”, en lucha”, Raquel Schrott and Ezequiel Miodownik for the News Agency Biodiversidadla,
(3) “Argentina_MUJERES WICHI Y GUARANI: La lucha continúa”, Red Latina Sin Fronteras,