Tag Archive | "Environment"

Córdoba: High Court Ratifies Ban on Open-Pit Mining


The High Court of Córdoba (TSJ) today ruled that a provincial ban on open-pit mining was constitutional, thereby rejecting an appeal by mining and nuclear energy companies.

Approved in 2008, provincial law 9526 prohibits open-pit metal mining throughout Córdoba. It also bans all mining for uranium or thorium – both used to create nuclear energy – and prevents the use of toxic chemicals in any mining projects that are permitted.

La Alumbrera in Catamarca is the largest open-pit mines in Argentina (Photo: Alejandro Olivera)

La Alumbrera in Catamarca is the largest open-pit mines in Argentina (Photo: Alejandro Olivera)

The Chamber of Mining Companies in Córdoba (Cemincor) and The Association of Professional from the National Commission for Atomic Energy and Nuclear Activity (APCNEAN) appealed against the law, calling it an ‘arbitrary’ ban on certain activities and substances that contradicted the national mining code and constitution.

However, the TSJ determined that in Argentina’s federal system each province was able to create laws to best suit the interests of the local population. It also ruled that the environment is a “supreme collective good” and as such, it was reasonable to be protect it by law.

“The magnitude of environmental consequences with respect to water and the large amounts of environmental waste generated by open-pit mining, combined with past experiences in the province, creates grounds for the restrictions included in Law 9526,” reads the ruling. “The law complies with a constitutional duty described by the National Supreme Court as guaranteeing ‘that future generations may enjoy the environment’.”

The TSJ added that the restrictions on open pit mining and the use of certain chemicals did not imply a blanket ban on mining activity in the province.

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

Out Now: Castores, La invasión del fin del mundo


The introduction of beavers in Tierra del Fuego in the 1940s might seem like an interesting, yet trivial fact. But ‘Castores: la invasión del fin del mundo’ (‘Beavers: The Invasion at the End of the World’) by Pablo Chehebar and Nicolas Iacouzzi might persuade you otherwise. The documentary addressed the problem of overpopulation and the ecological catastrophe that the introduction of these rodents has caused in the southern extremes of the continent.

A tree eaten by a beaver in Tierra del Fuego (Photo courtesy of Metiche Films)

A tree eaten by a beaver in Tierra del Fuego (Photo courtesy of Metiche Films)

The idea for the documentary emerged after the directors were told the story of how 20 beavers, brought over from Canada in 1940 to develop a fur industry in Argentina, had gone out of control.

“When we saw a picture of a beaver dam in the forest it impressed us greatly: it looked like a bomb had fallen in the forest,” explained Iacouzzi. “The situation was so serious that people dedicated to the conservation of species and nature said ‘the only thing left is to kill them all…’ And the third and bizarre leg of this conflict was that the beaver currently in Ushuaia was used as a tourist attraction, so there was a character disguised as beaver walking in the city streets handing out leaflets. That’s when we said: ‘Here’s an interesting story to tell’.”

With no natural predators on the island, the original 20 beavers have multiplied to number around 150,000, making their population larger than that of the 134,000 or so humans living in the area. Adult beavers, weighing between 23 and 25kg, engineer their environment by cutting down trees to make dams in order to create a suitable location for edible plants to grow. In the process they destroy the ecosystem because their constructions flood river banks and widen the streams and rivers, resulting in soil erosion and reduced water quality. Simultaneously – unlike trees in the beavers’ native Canada – the trees in Tierra del Fuego die when cut, and do not survive immersion under water. To make matters worse, the cycle of renovation for the forest is much longer than in the north.

Beaver dams are re-routing rivers in the area, affecting the local ecosystem (Photo courtesy of Metiche Films)

Beaver dams are re-routing rivers in the area, affecting the local ecosystem (Photo courtesy of Metiche Films)

The directors tell this story well, avoiding the style of a traditional nature documentary. “We decided to make a more sociological documentary, where we show different views of people about the issue,” Iacouzzi explains. The visual interplay between interviews and nature scenes on the one hand, and animation on the other, is a stunning backdrop to a wide cross-section of views from artists, fur sellers, designers, hunters, wildlife conservationists, and those benefitting from beaver tourism, among others. The film also presents the somewhat desperate attempts to control the population and the adaption needed to coexist with the beavers.

At times funny, and at times sad, the documentary captivates and educates throughout, leaving the viewer well-informed about the detrimental consequence of the introduction of the little rodents to an ecosystem that they are exogenous to. Iacouzzi explains that the greatest challenge for the two young filmmakers was to tell the story in an entertaining way: “A lot of hard data can be interesting, but our goal was to bring this documentary to as many people as possible. So from the beginning we knew we did not want to make a documentary with only a scientific tone. We wanted to tell a story that seemed amazing to us through a story, and a problem that can be a mirror of many others.”

Indeed, threatening the very existence of some of the most pristine forests in the world, the problem of the beavers can be seen as a problem of modernity, where man’s attempts to control the environment for economic gain has resulted in unintended and often detrimental consequences. Perhaps the most notable example is the virtual disappearance since 1960 of one of the largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea, due to the Soviet Union channelling the lake’s water for irrigation purposes. Times might be changing, however. In the cinema, the audience laughs when an interviewee proposes solving the problem in Tierra del Fuego by introducing bigger predators to the area in order to control the population of the beavers.

The beavers were originally introduced for their fur. (Photo courtesy of Metiche Films)

The beavers were originally introduced for their fur. (Photo courtesy of Metiche Films)

Conversely, the documentary does not offer easy solutions to the problem. For the directors, the subject matter is part of a wider issue of a “biological drama”, of not knowing the nature that surrounds us. The objective of the film is then to allow the viewer to form his own opinion about the conflict and avoid reproducing the problem with other species. “How many people, upon visiting the square nearest to their homes, can identify the trees or birds that inhabit it?” says Iacouzzi.

Yet, beyond awareness of the problem, something has to be done. During the film, a visual representation of the beavers’ rapid spread leaves one with a grave sense of urgency. As biologist Christopher Anderson told Clarín: “It is expected that the invasion will reach Bariloche. It is proven in Tierra del Fuego that [the beavers] can inhabit treeless environments, i.e. the steppe. So there is no reason not to predict that the invasion will come to Bariloche or beyond.”

Unfortunately the eradication of beavers in Tierra del Fuego and the part of the Chilean Patagonia they have reached would require extensive cooperation between the governments of both countries, and an estimated US$37m.

Whether we like beavers or not, we may soon be able to spot them without travelling all the way to the south.

‘Castores: La invasion del fin del mundo’ is showing at the Gaumont for until 18th June. Tickets $8, students and concessions $6. See the programme for screening times. For more information about the documentary, visit the filmmakers’ website.

Posted in Environment, Film, Social Issues, The ArtsComments (0)

Ecuador: Ship Runs Aground in Galápagos Islands


There are fears the wreck could contaminate the islands' pristine waters (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are fears the wreck could contaminate the islands’ pristine waters (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Ecuadorian authorities have declared a state of emergency in the Galápagos Islands after the freighter ‘Floreana’ ran aground just off San Cristóbal Island, in the aptly named ‘Wreck Bay’.

The incident, which took place on 28th January, is the third in under a year, after Galapaface I hit the rocks last May, and a ship en route to the islands carrying 1,200 tonnes of cargo sunk close to Santa Elena Peninsula in November.

The Floreana was transporting 1,925 tonnes of cargo, including food, supplies, construction materials, and some hazardous substances, such as 37,000 litres of fuel, 11 tonnes of pinion oil, 103 gas cylinders, 48 tonnes of asphalt emulsion, and other materials, according to a bulletin issued by the Provincial Government of Galápagos.

In a press release, the Directorate of the Galápagos National Park and the Environmental Ministry reported that they have placed containment barriers and absorbent material around the Floreana to prevent possible discharge of pollutants into the bay. However, Ecuadorian navy personnel have reported the presence of contaminating material, a mixture of diesel and hydraulic oil, due to the flooding of the engine room, and the fuel leakage is said to be increasing.

Until there is evidence that the contamination has been contained, the park has closed three surfing spots near the incident area, and extra barges have been sent from the Ecuadorian mainland to accelerate unloading operations. Once the unloading is completed and the vessel is stabilised, it will be scuttled in an area outside the marine reserve.

The incident has reminded locals of the 2001 incident in which Jessica, an oil tanker, ran aground in Wreck Bay, spilling over 650,000 litres of diesel and fuel oil. It was ranked as one of the worst environmental disasters in Galápagos history.

The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for the vast number of species and pristine environment, and are located some 900km off Ecuador’s Pacific coast.

 

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Nicaragua: Construction to Begin on Controversial Canal


The chosen Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

The Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

Construction is due to begin on Nicaragua’s Great Inter-oceanic Canal today. When finished, the 278km canal will link the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea, crossing Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest drinking water reservoir.

Chinese-based HKND Group will construct the canal and also retain the rights to operate the project, which will also includes a rail line, an oil pipeline, and a deep water shipping terminal at either end, for the next 100 years. The project is due to be completed in 2020.

When operational, an estimated 5,100 of the world’s largest cargo ships will be able to pass through the canal each year, representing approximate 5% of global cargo transport. Complementary projects will include a new international airport, a free trade zone, and new tourist complexes.

Proponents of the plan claim that the US$50bn project could create 250,000 jobs – 50,000 directly and a further 200,000 indirectly – and provide an economic boost to the country, which is the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

But opponents say the canal will cause an environmental and social disaster, with hundreds of communities set to be displaced, as the planned route cuts through towns, farmland, and protected indigenous territory. The canal will also make its way through about 400 hectares of wetlands and rain forests, including the northern sector of the Cerro Silva natural reserve. Environmentalists also warn that the canal could lead to saltwater seepage into Lake Nicaragua, as well as the introduction of invasive species carried in by international cargo carriers.

Additionally, according to Law 840, which governs the canal deal, HKND can expropriate land anywhere in Nicaragua and must pay landowners the tax-assessed value of the property, which is usually much lower than the land’s actual value.

In most of the towns slated for relocation, there is little or no information. Activists say that most residents don’t seem to know when they are expected to leave, where they will go, or if they will be paid.

To address these issues, HKND hired London-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM) to conduct environmental and social impact assessments. Though ERM presented their preliminary results in November, the studies have not been made public, and there is no requirement for the assessments to be made available to the Nicaraguan public.

“The fact that they first approved the concession instead of first having all the studies, and only then — knowing the data and knowing that it is feasible  — approving the project, makes us think that they are going about it from the wrong direction,” Jorge Huete, president of Nicaragua’s National Academy of Sciences, said in a recent interview.

Earlier this year, a group of 12 environmental NGOs published their own independent study on the effects of the canal, concluding the social and environmental impacts made the canal neither viable nor sustainable.

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Salta Governor closes Deforestation Loophole


Illegal deforestation in Salta (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina)

Illegal deforestation in Salta (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina)

To the delight of environmentalists, deforestation will no longer be allowed in protected areas of Salta.

Provincial governor, Juan Manuel Urtubey, has closed a loophole that had allowed landowners to recategorise their land, thus giving a green light to deforestation in areas that should have been preserved under the national Forest Law.

“We celebrate that Governor Urtubey has removed the decrees that authorised landowners to deforest areas that were not allowed under the Forest Law. It is a victory for all Argentines and organisations that want a country with forests and as such fight for the laws that will protect them – something we will continue to do until the law is followed,” said Hernán Giardini, coordinator of the forest campaign for Greenpeace.

The environmental organisation has been at the frontline of a two-year fight against Urtubey’s decrees, spearheading a campaign that highlighted illegal deforestation in Salta, and organising a petition to stop deforestation in the province that was signed by more than 350,000 people.

All wooded areas will now be guaranteed the protections afforded by the Law, which was passed in 2007, which categorised forests and wooded areas in a traffic-light system, protecting areas classified as ‘red’, allowing for selected logging in areas categorised as ‘yellow’, and permitting the clearing of areas denominated ‘green’.

However, under a provincial amendment, in Salta landowners were allowed to recategorise their land, and many areas previously considered ‘red’ were changed to ‘yellow’ or even ‘green’. It is estimated that 130,000 hectares of forest that should have been conserved were cleared as a result of this landowner recategorisation.

Greenpeace is now lobbying the government of Salta to revoke the deforestation permissions that were granted under the loophole, thus ensuring no more areas are cleared as a result of the recategorisation.

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Chile: Mine Closed over Environmental Concerns


Mine location map (image courtesy of SMA)

Mine location map (image courtesy of SMA)

Santiago de Chile’s Environmental Tribunal ordered that a mine in the district of Maipú be temporarily shut down on environmental grounds.

Court sources indicated that Minera Panales, located west of the capital, in the Santiago Metropolitan Area, posed an imminent threat to the environment. The measure to shut down the mine’s operations was requested by the Environment Superintendence (SMA), which stated the area where the mine is located is rich in “protected animal and plant species, and contains threatened and proportionally unprotected ecosystems.”

According to the supporting documents provided by the SMA, the company Minera Española Chile Limitada has been operating in the Quebrada de La Plata area for over four years without authorisation, and with two court sentences against it for illegal logging.

The court document detailing the suspension states that “the continuation of mining activities, due to its nature, extension and location, generates imminent environmental risks, which is particularly relevant when said activity is carried out in an area with the environmental characteristics previously mentioned.”

The mine will remain closed for 30 days. The suspension can be renewed upon request.

 

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Colombia: Farmers Sue BP in UK High Court


BP_LogoA group of Colombian subsistence farmers are suing British oil giant BP for environmental damages in a case that began today in the UK High Court, in London.

The 109 farmers are seeking £18m (US$29m) in compensation from BP, claiming that negligence in the construction of a pipeline in the 1990s led to a big impact on the local water supply and caused serious damage to land, crops, and livestock.

One of the farmers in London to testify in the trial told The Guardian that: “Our water supply has been damaged by sedimentation since the pipeline was laid, and I have lost cattle. I can no longer keep pigs or chickens because there is not enough water for them. The reason why we have travelled so far is because we have hope and faith that the high court in London will deliver justice to us.”

A lawyer for the farmers, Alex Layton, told the court that BP had “blamed everyone else while not accepting its responsibilities,” reports AFP.

BP defends itself against the allegations, saying it took “significant steps” to engage with local communities and pay fair compensation for any impact. Last month, the company was found guilty of gross negligence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

This landmark trial is the first to feature a UK oil company in a UK court for alleged environmental damages caused to private land overseas. If the ruling goes in favour of the farmers it could open the path to other claims.

The trial is expected to last around eight months.

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Nicaragua: Environmental NGOs say Interoceanic Canal ‘Not Viable’


The chosen Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

The chosen Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

The 278km interoceanic canal to be constructed in Nicaragua is not viable or sustainable due to its environmental and social impact, according to a study conducted by a group of NGOs.

Grupo Cocibolca, which unites 12 environmental organisations, reported yesterday that the amount of water need to fill the canal represents more than half that currently available in underground systems, and could create shortages for the population. Furthermore, the canal will pass through Lake Nicaragua, the country’s largest freshwater lake, causing concern over contamination in a key source of drinking water.

In addition, the study finds that 59.4% of the canal route over land crosses native forest and indigenous territories, affecting an estimated 270 communities.

“The evaluation is that in its current guise, the canal project is not viable,” Víctor Campos, director of Centro Humboldt, one of the organisations involved, told AFP. “The environmental damage is too high relative to the benefits.”

“We must balance the interests of a few businessmen and those of thousands of Nicaraguan citizens,” added Rosario Sáenz Ruiz, director of Fundenic-SOS.

The report is the latest document to criticise the canal mega-project, just week before construction is set to begin in December. Danish NGO Forests of the World recently argued that the canal could “wreak havoc” on local forests and indigenous communities.

The NGO urged Danish shipping giant Maersk to pressure the government to ensure that “the indigenous peoples will be heard and measures be taken to protect the environment.”

Furthermore, in the last week hundreds of farmers have staged protests against the canal over fears that some of their land will be expropriated. The government said that it would pay a fair price for any land expropriated and that the canal would bring great economic benefits to the country.

The canal, to be built and operated by the Hong-Kong based development company HKND Group, will cost an estimated US$40bn and is expected to be completed by the end of the decade. When operational, an estimated 5,100 of the world’s largest cargo ships will be able to pass through the canal each year, representing approximate 5% of global cargo transport. Complementary projects are set to include a new international airport, a free trade zone, and new tourist complexes.

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Latin American Nations Commit to Climate Action at UN Summit


Latin American heads of state expressed their commitment to fight climate change and lambasted industrialised nations for not abiding by environmental regulations at the UN Climate Summit in New York on 23rd September.

They joined a guest list of 150 heads of states as well as business leaders, civil society representatives and celebrities during the special one-day event at the UN headquarters.

Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the opening of the UN Climate Summit. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the opening of the UN Climate Summit. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The UN has warned that global temperature rose by 0.85°C between 1880 and 2012. It predicted that temperature will increase between 1°C and 3.7°C this century.

A Global Carbon Budget report published on 21st September found that during 2013 global emissions had increased by 2.3%. The majority of the emissions were produced by four nations or blocs: China produced 28% of global emissions, followed by 14% for the United States, 10% for the European Union, and 7% for India. Brazil and Mexico were the only Latin American countries to appear in the Top 20 worst emitters during 2013, figuring 12th and 13th in the global ranking respectively.

The Price to Pay

A day before the summit opened, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) released a report that said that the region “has made a minor contribution to climate change, given the region’s low levels of greenhouse gas emissions”. However, the study found the region to be “particularly vulnerable to its negative impacts.”

The cost Latin American nations would have to pay – should the world carry on along this road – would include long term agricultural loss in a region where many economies depend on export of agricultural products.

“The projected losses in the agricultural sector will also have multiple effects, such as slowing progress towards poverty-reduction and food-security goals,” reads the report.

Due to rising gasoline consumption, Latin American countries already suffer from deteriorating air quality in congested cities, a “serious” degradation of natural assets like water and forests, as well as health issues.

Bolivian President Evo Morales was among the speakers (UN Photo/)

Bolivian President Evo Morales was among the speakers at the UN Climate Summit (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

A Joint Effort 

Amongst the first speakers at the UN summit was Peru’s president Ollanta Humala, who stressed that “building consensus on this topic” was a priority. His nation will host the next UN climate conference, COP20, in Lima this December.

President Humala then called for developed economies – the major greenhouse gas emitters – to take responsibility for their contribution to global warming. “It is time for developed countries to acknowledge their responsibility in climate change,” he said.

In a similar vein, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales said: “The extent to which developing countries will effectively implement their commitments under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will depend on the effective implementation by developed countries of their commitments under the Convention.”

He added that industrialised countries have to provide “financial resources and transfer of technology and […] take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.”

Ecuador’s environment minister Lorena Tapia affirmed “the importance of negotiation on climate change” but lamented the “lack of commitment of developed countries”.

She said that the Kyoto protocol is the “cornerstone” of climate change efforts and deplored the fact industrialised nations – like the United States – had not ratified it.

Economy vs Ecology

For his part, Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro scolded the Western capitalism model of growth that has led to a dramatic increase of carbon emissions. “Until when will we follow a capitalist model?” he asked.

President Maduro then asked the audience to be realistic about world business leaders’ commitment to climate change. “Does anyone believe that multinational companies can change themselves into protagonists of salvation for the planet?

“If you want to change the climate, we need to change the system,” he added.

The address of Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was along the same lines: “The main cause of the world environment crisis, including climate change, continues to be the irrational and unsustainable production and consumption patterns that support the capitalist economic domination system, which generates greater poverty and inequalities,” he said.

He also explained that “less luxury and less waste in a few countries would mean less poverty and hunger in much of the world”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the People's Climate March on Sunday, two days ahead of Tuesday's UN summit. (Photo by Mark Garten, courtesy of the UN)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the likes of Al Gore and Jane Goodall at the People’s Climate March on Sunday, ahead of the UN summit. (Photo by Mark Garten, courtesy of the UN)

Pledges of Sustainable Development

Latin American countries pledged to promote to sustainable development ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate meeting, COP21, when a global agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol will be adopted.

President Bachelet listed various measures Chile is taking to combat climate change, such as the launch of an energy agenda for “more diverse, safer and cleaner systems”.

She said that her country will add over 1,000 megawatts into its energy grid in 2014, and recover degraded soils to combat deforestation.

President Enrique Peña Nieto acknowledged that Mexico was a “moderate emitter”, but pointed out that his country voted the general climate change law in 2012 that aims to reduce 30% of the 2000-level gas emissions by 2020 and 50% by 2050. He also vowed to generate 34.6% of electricity production from renewable energies by 2018.

“Climate change is not only an obligation but also an opportunity to transform our economy and make it more competitive in the future,” said Peru’s president, who reiterated his country’s efforts to fight deforestation and illegal mining.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s president Luis Guillermo Solis acknowledged that all countries contribute to global warming due to industrial activities but at different levels. He emphasised that the largest economies should “lead these efforts” for global consensus. However, his country is already one of the greenest in the world, with a commitment to be a carbon neutral nation by 2021.

President Solis confirmed that the Central American country will develop an electric railway system and a bus system that use fuel only so as to substantially decrease traffic and carbon emissions. President Solis stressed the need for developing countries to have access to “appropriate and affordable” energy technologies.

Brazilian Deforestation Disappointment

Anti-deforestation campaigners have expressed disappointment at Brazil’s rejection of an anti-deforestation pledge, the centerpiece of the UN Summit. More than 30 countries set a deadline to end deforestation by 2030, but the South American giant, which has the largest continuous rainforest in the world, refused to sign on, saying the plan conflicts with its own laws and targets.

If successful, the plan could reduce carbon emissions by an estimated eight billion tonnes per year – the equivalent of emissions by all of the world’s one billion cars.

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La Aurora: A New Dawn


This is an exclusive English translation of an article that originally appeared in Periódico MU no. 79, from August.

Is it possible to work the land in an efficient and profitable way without agrochemicals or fertilisers? An agro-ecological establishment in Buenos Aires province shows its crops, cattle, and results. Through the alliance between the producer and agronomist, we see a new paradigm, proving it’s possible to be independent of the genetically modified model and achieve healthy agriculture.

xxx

Producer Juan Kiehr and agricultural engineer Eduardo Cerdá on Kiehr’s farm in Benito Juárez

Breast implants, vulture funds, football transfer fees, wars without truce, cooking competitions, internal politics, celebrity divorces, torturing for peace, instant prizes, killing for a bicycle, deadly virus, drug trafficking, children’s month, abusive pedophiles, open pit mining, nightclubs with prostitutes, furnish your home in instalments, apocalyptic editorials, exclusive benefits, global uncertainty, beauty treatments, real and false news, advertisements, press operations, and words, words, words.

Looking up from the newspaper, the landscape from the window of the coach is an ocean of soy fields, which we are crossing at 90 kmph down Ruta 3, on the way to Benito Juárez, Capital of Friendship, with it’s population of 15,000, 400km south of Buenos Aires. And then to a 650-hectare farm called La Aurora. A different landscape and different words.

There, next to a tractor, with his big hands from working the land, knee-high boots, short-rimmed hat, is 71-year-old Juan Kiehr, a producer who has conceived an almost-epic project at this point in history: to live in peace.

The 4×4 and the F100

Juan Kiehr's

Juan Kiehr’s F100

Juan Kiehr is the grandson of Danes, cordial and hospitable, with a tendency for perseverance: he married once, more than 40 years ago, to Erna Bloti, a Swiss woman with whom he has two daughters. He doesn’t drive a vulgar 4×4, but a F100 which is 47 years old and has visited an unknown number of worlds, as the odometer broke a long time ago. “And if I have to travel, I use the Megane, which is a gem.”

In the F100 we reach a hilltop from where we can see the farm in perspective. In his cracked and serene voice he says: “This was my father’s. I took over in 1981 when he passed away. During the first years I followed the trend, like any other producer. But with time, above all during the past 15 or 20 years, I have seen what agrochemicals do to the soil, and that, combined with the statistics of what is being used in Argentina, is a scary thing.”

He is not trying to convince anybody, just telling his story. “I thought: I don’t want to leave a corpse for those who follow me. I want to leave this farm in as good a condition as I found it in, or better. I can’t think of any other way to work.

“I am psychologically allergic to the idea of working with poisons. It’s not that I am afraid to handle them, but I see what they are doing to the soil and to the water, and they are things that are very hard to undo. And I was here with my family. I didn’t want that for the place where we live.

“And on top of it all, those products are really expensive. And they way the lose their effectiveness, so you have to use evermore. It started with two litres per hectare, and now they are on 12 or 14. Spending more, poisoning more, for the same results.”

Kiehr had another elusive dream: live, insofar as possible, without economic shocks. “So that family doesn’t go without. You work as much as you can as it is the role of paternity with responsibility, I think. It’s not the same as saying I’m going fishing, sort yourselves out.”

Heart + profit

Kiehr was mulling over his ideas when he crossed paths with Eduardo Cerdá, an agricultural engineer, who had been a consultant for various producers in the area since 1990, who were organised as a cooperative. The group fell apart for different reasons, deaths (cancer), and different opinions on how to work the land. Since 1997, after the Menem opened the country to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) via the approval of glyphosate requested by Monsanto, Cerdá became Kiehr’s consultant.

Cerdá had studied in La Plata, where he met the agricultural engineer Santiago Sarandón, his professor in the course on cereals. Sarandón had been trying to find a sense in the course and his own career, beyond the stereotype of an agronomist who is reduced to applying recipes and recommending chemical products, and created the first agroecology course in the country, a science which combined agronomy with ecology.

Technical definition: “Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principles in the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. Agroecology uses the natural processes of interactions that are produced on the farm with the aim of reducing the use of external inputs and improving the biological efficiency of the crop system.”

The external inputs are herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and other inventions of the chemical industry, which created the superstition that it is impossible to work without their widespread use, adding to GM crops like soy, maize, rape, sunflower, cotton, and rice.

Cerdá came with these ideas about agroecology and towards the end of the 90s collided with a terrain that was ever-more flooded with massive fumigations and GM soy monoculture. “The argument of agroecology was theoretical, but not adapted to concrete productive situations, above all in this region.”

Juan with his trusted tractor

Juan Kiehr with his trusted tractor

Meanwhile, Kiehr’s mistrust was fertilised. “Agricultural engineers would come by, who in reality are selling products. Perhaps they didn’t have a choice, but they would sweeten the producer, and lead him like a show cow, give him a hat, talk about technology with the aim of selling products and machines, an entire propaganda apparatus like you can see in Chacra o Clarín Rural.” He opens his hands. “You are a farmer, not an agricultural exploiter. But it is like a vortex and they want to make you feel: you are in the technology that they sell you, or you’ve been left behind. I don’t want to charge anybody for that they do, but it is not true that that is the only option or the best option. An let’s be frank – who is really benefitting from all this? The producer, or the corporations that manufacture and advertise it all?”

On a national level, the Chamber of Agricultural Health and Fertilisers (CASAFE) states that the use of pesticides has risen 858% in the last two decades, whilst the agricultural acreage has risen just 50% and the crop yield 30% (figures from the University Network for Environment and Health). The business that corporations like Syngenta, Bayer, and Monsanto lead means the application of 317m litres of pesticides (including 200m litres of glyphosate) in Argentina during the 2012-13 season, with revenues of US$2.38bn.

Instead, in La Aurora, there were tours around the lots in the F100, talks which harmonised the knowledge Cerdá brought from university with what Kiehr knew about the land. It was not a change from one day to the next, rather from one life to the next. The farm was redesigned agroecologically, by people who were able to combine using their hearts and heads, with their feet on the ground.

The heart, because this is a family farm that Kiehr inherited, loves, and which he will leave to his kin.

The head, because thinking how to manage it in a way that will not impoverish or kill the soil, or be dangerous for living organisms, including humans.

And the feet on the ground, so that this work values the farm instead of bleeding it dry, and allows a production that will also be efficient and profitable.

There remains just one small detail: how is it done?

GM Republic

La Aurora appears as a case study in one of today’s most interesting and shocking wake up calls, which is not yet published but will be freely downloadable: ‘Agroecología: bases teóricas para el diseño y manejo de agroecosistemas sustentables’ (Agroecology: Theoretical bases for the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems). Edited by the La Plata University’s Faculty of Agrarian and Forestry Sciences, it is written by agricultural engineer Santiago Sarandón and his colleague Cecilia Flores, with contributions from other professionals.

A scientific and technical work that studies production, describes new paradigms to understand the rural situation, as well as proposals. For example, Chapter 1 is called ‘The unsustainability of the current agricultural model’.

It highlights, among other problems:

– The dependency on agrochemicals (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilisers).

– Contamination of food, water, soil, and people by pesticides and products derived from the use of chemical fertilisers.

– Development of resistance to pesticides by certain pests and pathogens.

– Loss of productive capability of the soils, due to erosion, degradation, salinisation, and desertification.

– Loss of nutrients in the soils.

– Loss of biodiversity.

– Contribution to global warming and decrease in the ozone layer.

– The problem of rural poverty has not been resolved.

The last chapter is dedicated to La Aurora, and was written by Sarandón and Flores along with Cerdá himself, in his dual role as agronomist and Kiehr’s farm consultant. There, the situation of the Pampas is explained, where cattle has been replaced by crops that are dependent on toxic inputs, costs have risen, and medium-scale family producers have been expelled: in 20 years, the number of agricultural establishments has halved in the region, concentrating land ownership in fewer hands. Against this backdrop, the question arises: how did they manage to find a model that is efficient without agrotoxins, so much so that now even scientific books are describing it?

The art of redesign

The Kiehr's home is the heart of the farm

The Kiehr’s home is the heart of the farm

The house is spacious, beautiful, warm. It is not “country style”, but Juan-Erna style. There’s wooden furniture that they brought from Chaco, a living room with bookshelves and family mementos, LCD and video player, a wood burner for Winter, and a large kitchen which makes this house a home. There is a second house for guests. Kiehr speaks proudly of his daughters: Teresa is a doctor and Sara a physiotherapist. Both are married, and they have given him three grandchildren. Sara lives in Germany, and the family tend to visit her there every year. He has an almost pictorial view of the countryside: “I’m surrounded by soy operations. It’s all nature, but dead. There are not even birds.”

While Kiehr serves the mate, Cerdá explains: “The moment arose when we were talking with Juan about the design of the production. For example, there was a lot of sunflower, but Juan suggested changing it.” Kiehr: “We did it for years with herbicides that we put down before the crops grew. But they left the ground dusty, strange. Then the slugs came and we had to spray again, and again for the weeds, and again for pests such as grubs, until I said: enough. I decided to throw myself into cattle farming.” La Aurora has 297 hectares for crops, and 334 (hills and valleys) which are more suitable for cattle.

They eliminated the sunflower almost entirely and began working the work of consolidating the cattle (breeding and wintering), as a basis for the re-launch of the farm’s production, but without chemicals. Cerdá: “The cattle did not make as much profit as the crops, but it worked as a great base and compliment to rethink the production of wheat, oats, barley, and sorghum, not dependent on inputs.”

Outline and Achievements

The agroecology applied in La Aurora, in a few lines:

– Healthy, free cattle, fed on natural grasses, with calves that reach 500kg and are sold as steers for export, which feed the ground with dung and urine. They have between 600 and 700 heads. Kiehr strategically installed 25 drinking troughs (around which the animals will naturally defecate) to cover the entire farm.

– As such, the ground is strengthened, enriched, fertilised, and better retains moisture and nutrients. And whilst feedlots are surrounded by the stench of rot in which the animals live, in La Aurora there is never a smell of dung.

– The plantations are done with intercropping, legumes such as red clover, which helps avoid the growth of weeds and fasten nitrogen, a fundamental nutrient for the soil. As such the polyculture has avoided the use of fertilisers since 2001.

– The nourished and vital soil, added to the systems which allow the natural habitat of insects which, also, bring benefits to the ecosystem, means there is no need for herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, or chemical fertilisers.

It is easier to write this than do it, but the result (see the graph, below) is that without counting the profit made by the cattle, Kiehr obtains almost the same yield from the crops as neighbouring farms (10% less), but with much lower costs: US$300 a month less per hectare in the case of wheat. In the 80 hectares that he is cultivating today, that saving represents US$24,000, and also saves the earth, the water, and the deluge of ever less useful poisons, and chemicals which fertilise little and badly: just two or three nutrients, versus the 16 found in La Aurora’s natural process. Without those nutrients that plants are weak (although drugged by fertilisers) and as such become victims of fungi and disease, which means more fungicides and chemicals are needed, an eternal merry-go-round that benefits you know who.

Kiehr avoids all of this, covers his costs quickly, spends less, obtains almost the same, but healthily and without artificial stimulants, and has a greater profit (US$762 per hectare versus US$549 using a conventional system), as well as a better return: the farm returns US$5.15 for every dollar invested, against the US$1.13 recovered by a conventional producer.

Cerdá: “If the system works with GMOs and agrotoxins, it is because of its enormous inefficiency, and because an unnatural, corporate logic reigns, like that of a drug addict, based in the chemistry and the money. We aim for healthy agriculture that re-establishes the biological processes, doesn’t degrade resources, and is efficient in terms of production. It is a view to become independent, to not be tied to a model that poisons and impoverishes.”

xxx

The chart shows the advantages that agroecology (yellow) has over more traditional farming methods (black and white), listing (L-R) differences in yield, profit, direct costs, yield needed to cover costs, and return per dollar invested.

How it works

The farm uses its own seeds. Cerdá: “How are you going to patent something that is alive, as the labs aim to do? Even if you have changed a gene? It all goes to show that GMs are not good for the country, its citizens or producers. Food is a plant’s main asset, destined to be consumed by butterflies, caterpillars, pests which we consume without knowing the side-effects or its capacity to evolve. These seeds and transgenes do not help the producer, they only indebt them, and end up leading to an extraction in the richness of the soil which we then give away through the export of the grain for animals and oils, above all to China.”

Kiehr adds: “And it’s not true that it’s to feed the world, because there is more than enough food. The problem is that they are badly distributed. This is done purely for commercial interest. And the Seed Law, for Monsanto, makes me think of Colombia: people can’t keep their own seeds, it’s illegal, they burn them if they are not the ones that the corporations have sold them. I find it hard to believe that the government will push through such a conservative law, but they also do good things with the IPAF (Institute for Small Family Agriculture): it’s contradictory, I don’t know if this is a right-wing government disguised as leftist but, of course, I could be wrong.”

The agroecology applied in this farm also allows for the growth in cattle stock, more efficient fattening, and real stability in the production (95 tonnes per year). In the biggest drought of the last 70 years (2008/9), 15,000 heads of cattle died due to a lack of food in the region. But La Aurora suffered no losses, thanks to the ground and the way the crops had been worked, they resisted the debacle.

Is agroecology related to organic? Cerdá: “Organic producers in this region are following the same conventional model, just without pesticides.” The “organic” certification ends up being a supposedly healthy niche of the same fumigated market, but at prohibitively high prices. “When I see them, they talk about what deal they’ve done, how much they’ve made, but they never talk about the soil, how to work it. Their farms are good, but they yield much less than La Aurora [1,000kg of wheat per hectare against 5,000kg], and they use chemical fertilisers, which is like drugging the plants to make them look good, with products that prejudice the biosystem of the soil, and drain towards the underground wells generating contamination and toxicity due to nitrates and nitrites. You buy a crispy, colourful lettuce but because of those fertilisers you don’t know what ill effects it could bring you. Organic is not looking at things in an agroecological way.”

Juan is partially driven by the desire to leave a healthy, working business for his family

Juan is partially driven by the desire to leave a healthy, working business for his family

Capital and motivation

“It is important to highlight that the technologies that were used in this farm can be easily appropriated by producers, given that there are no large capital investments needed, it is more about the engineering, about an advisor-producer compliment and the motivation that is generated by understanding what you are designing and managing,” says the Sarandón-Flores book in the chapter about La Aurora, highlighting that the results achieved “show the potential for this focus to be applied in extensive systems [read: large farms] of temperate climate like those in the Argentine Pampa region.”

Continuing the mate, Cerdá says: “Juan was able to live without shocks, his daughters were able to study, travel, and although some see his F100 as a sign of poverty, Juan doesn’t own a 4×4 as he is not interested in inventing costs to lower his how much he is taxed on his profits, nor is he interested in the costs that owning a 4×4 would entail. He is on top of his taxes, and the entire farm is run legitimately, by the book”. Kiehr adds another feat: “I have never had to take out a loan.”

The INTA and other entities started to approach him, sometimes in a strange way, and they have been obliged to say agroecology more regularly. The visitors get excited, like when they visit Guadalupe Norte, Santa Fe: the Vénica family’s Naturaleza Viva farm.

At La Plata University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Kiehr and Cerdá had a public of 400 students. “It makes me feel very good,” says Kiehr, as if resuming what his wife Erna calls the wonder years. They met in Chaco at the start of the 70s, her as a nurse and him as a member of the Lutheran church, both collaborating with the Qom community, then called Toba. “The work changed me,” says Kiehr. “I understood what it meant to not have so many things, but to be more of a person. When I returned it took me a while to adjust. My neighbours would spend time speaking badly about this person or that, and I felt an emptiness. I am happy now, doing something that makes me feel useful, connected with other people. I am thankful for them, and they changed my life.”

Chinese News

Cerdá brings up a new subject: “In Rosario I’m working with soy producers, who are starting to move away from the GM path. They can’t do it overnight, like an addict it’s impossible to be cured from one day to the next, but they are starting to be convinced that it is feasible.”

Maybe its sheer caution: in China the publication known in the West as Science & Technology Abstracts Newspaper, from the Ministry of Science and Technology, published an article in April which reflects the official preoccupation for the consequences of mass consumption over two decades of foods that are by-products of GM soy (animal fodder and oil), which contain glyphosate, which starts to be tied to birth defects, rises in the cases of cancer, many of them unusual, infertility, and other illnesses. ‘We must face the harm caused to 1.3bn Chinese by imported GM soy’, is the title of the article by Mi Zhen-yu, Air Marshal and former vice president of the Military Science Academy, among other things.

Hypothesis: if in China, the world’s principal consumer of these things, they are realising the same things that the rural towns close to the fumigations, producers such as Kiehr, or scientists such as the late Andrés Carrasco came to understand, it is possible that a large change in this story is being sown. Perhaps one day, as Sarandón thought, agroecology will be the name of all agriculture.

Meanwhile, Cerdá is advising a neighbour’s farm in Benito Juárez, belonging to documentary filmmaker Valeria Mapelman, who in just two years made her own reconversion to agroecology, which is turning out to be more profitable that she had hoped, making more than she would have made leasing it to poole planting, who enter the business until they fly vulture-like towards other bubbles.

The birds have returned to the farm.

Kiehr smiles.

And so it’s possible to hear the silence whilst looking towards the horizon with your feet on the ground.

What is being designed in La Aurora is a novelty: as its name indicates, perhaps it also means the breaking of a new dawn.

 

Translation by Kristie Robinson

lavaca logolavaca.org is a communications co-operative founded in 2001, and produces a web page, monthly magazine MU, and radio programmes that can be reproduced freely. Our home is the cultural centre ‘MU Punto de Encuentro’, at Hipólito Yrigoyen 1440, Congreso, Buenos Aires.

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