This story begins on the riverside of the Teuco River, in the region of El Impenetrable Chaco, a native dry forest located in the north of Argentina, a refuge of biodiversity protected by Indigenous communities.
One day, without prior notice, the native Qom communities living in the south of this region learned that Chinese investors were interested in their community lands. One of the neighbors of this territory is Carlos Leiva, 43, who lives within 150,000 hectares of communal property in the south of the Impenetrable. He is raising a few animals such as chickens, pigs, and goats.
Given the situation, neighbors were alarmed about the news. Only a few months prior, the governor had announced the installation of three large-scale pig production complexes with Chinese investment in the province. The governor, Jorge Capitanich, took advantage of the pre-agreement between Argentina and China to increase the production of pork in the South American country to export meat to the nation led by Xi Jinping.
According to Leiva, they lack precise information. “We still don’t know what kind of production they want to put in place, nor which Chinese company is involved or who the owners of that company are,” he said. The local community organized and denounced the violation of article 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), by which the companies must carry out prior consultation with the native communities before installing any factory in their territories.
Due to the complaint filed by the Qom communities, pork production with Chinese capital was picked up by major news outlets and some organizations joined them in their claim. One of them was Somos Monte, one of the main social movements in Chaco, dedicated to the protection of forests, biodiversity, and the fight against deforestation.
Nora Giménez, 67, a Somos Monte lawyer, said that from the beginning they noticed a lack of clarity on the part of the provincial government regarding the pig farms. “Not only is there no transparency, but they did not respond to the requests for information we made. We had to resort to the courts and sue the governor’s office for this reason,” Giménez said. The organization initiated a request for information that ended in an injunction for delay whose sentence condemned the provincial power to pay 5000 Argentine pesos – about 50 US dollars – for each day that they postpone the information requested by Somos Monte. The organization is still waiting for a response.
Pigs for China: the Chaco plan
Earth Journalism Network (EJN) interviewed Sebastián Lifton, Chaco’s Minister of Industry and Production, to obtain the information that was denied to the social organizations. The minister indicated that three pig production complexes consisting of five farms with between 2,400-2,500 mothers each and a radius of 100km will be installed in the province. It is estimated that each farm will have about 30,000 animals, or 150,000 animals per zone, which means an increase of about 73% in the production of pork in Chaco.
According to Lifton, the first complex will be set up between the towns of La Leonesa and General San Martín. It will take advantage of the proximity of the Paraguay and Río de Oro rivers and of the almost finished port of “Las Palmas”, which will serve as direct access to transport the pork to China. In addition, the most important meatpacking plant in the Northeast of Argentina is located in this area: FrigoPorc. This establishment is in charge of processing the animals – slaughtering, butchering, and packaging – from the neighboring farm with 2,100 mothers, and is in the process of being authorized to export to China. According to Lifton, FrigoPorc will increase the capacity of their slaughterhouse, following an expected increase in demand after the first farms are built in the area.
The second complex will be installed between Presidencia La Plaza and Roque Saenz Peña, in the center of the province. The third one will be established between Charata and Gancedo, on the border with Santiago del Estero. According to Minister Lifton, it is estimated that they will start with the first macro-farm in September: “As soon as they visit the country, which was postponed due to the pandemic, we will start with the first stage [the construction of the first complex]. We estimate that it will be in September”, Lifton says.
A controversial project at the expense of the community
The main economic group that will invest in Chaco and venture for the first time in Argentina will be the fourth largest pig producer in China: Zhengbang Group, according to Minister Lifton. “There are talks with many, but with Zhengbang there is an understanding,” he said. The minister referred to the conversations that took place with different Chinese economic groups through the mediation of Feng Tian Food, the technical team that carried out the agreements together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Ministry of Social Development.
Although Zhengbang was fined two years ago for environmental pollution caused by two of its pig farms in China, Chaco’s Secretary of Territorial Development and Environment, Marta Soneira said she is confident that the activity can be carried out without damaging the environment. Her arguments are based on the limitations on the number of mothers per farm (2400 – 2500), and the presence of a biodigester in each complex. However, there is no mention of this element in the agreement signed by the governor with Feng Tian Food, to which EJN had access. According to Soneira, her office will be in charge of supervising and evaluating the environmental impact reports prepared by the Chinese companies.
Minister Lifton also indicated that Chaco will benefit by “adding value to its production”. According to him, part of the soybean and corn produced in the province will go to feed pig farms in Chaco, so a percentage of these grains will become pork, a product with higher commercial value. “If we don’t do it, someone somewhere else in the world will use the soybeans and corn coming out of Chaco to produce pork,” Lifton said. According to the minister, the $129 million investment to be made by the Chinese company will help the economy of the province and the country, which has been hit for years by the economic crisis and inflation.
For environmental activists, these arguments are too familiar and apply the same rhetoric that manifested shortcomings in the past. “There are a lot of resources spent to sustain the productivity of a certain sector in a very short period without a social license and with a very high degree of pollution. There’s also community degradation that is evident in the loss of other sources of employment, the tendency to monopolize land, and emigration. This is very far from what we understand as sustainability,” said Guillermo Folguera. Folguera is a researcher in the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet), a biologist and philosopher, and is active in the protest against these kinds of farms.
The researcher added that this type of project, which makes a territory available to cover the needs of another, has to be reviewed. “Along with the change of scale, there has to be a change of logic, thinking about the environment and local welfare,” he said. Folguera refers to China’s need to supply itself with pork after the African swine fever virus wiped out its own production and for which it had to slaughter millions of pigs in 2018. This resulted in China seeking new markets to meet their demand for pork, which totals 30 kilos per capita per year. Chaco seeks to meet that need.
Chaco is a miniature illustration of Argentina’s primary export production matrix. Both the country and the province are engaged in the production of grains, meat, and other foodstuffs which are mainly exported to China, Brazil, the United States and Chile. However, it is estimated that almost half of the Argentine population lives in poverty and experiences food insecurity.
The social organizations grouped under the “No more false solutions” campaign believe that industrial swine production will not help the population’s food sovereignty. Nor will it help animal welfare. While in Europe there is a trend towards the elimination of cages in intensive pig production, Chaco has no such regulations in place. The Union de Trabajadores de la Tierra (UTT, or Land Workers Union), one of the most important social organizations in Argentina, proposes the production of pigs in a mixed farm format, which includes other animals and agroecological food in a low-impact system.
In addition to these criticisms, activists voiced concerns about the extreme drought that Argentina is currently experiencing, especially in Chaco and in the northern region of the country. This Chinese investment occurs during the worst drought recorded in Argentina since 1944, caused by the low water level of the Paraná River. Experts agree this is an extreme event caused by climate change and is aggravated by deforestation and the reduction of wetlands in the Paraná Basin. This situation could complicate the water supply in Chaco and other provinces. The pig farms to be installed in Chaco will require between two and three million liters of water daily, an estimate based on interviews with pig farms in the province. Meanwhile, it is estimated that around 24% of the population of Chaco, which amounts to more than 1 million inhabitants, has limited access to drinking water.
A well-known history of environmental deterioration
Pig production at scale adds to a long list of socio-environmental conflicts that mark the history of Chaco, which was established at the end of the 19th century, when the nascent Argentine State decimated the population of Indigenous communities, inaugurating an extractivist era in the province.
First, the extraction of tannin burst into the “green desert”, as Chaco was known for its forest cover. Later, the forest was converted into cotton fields. In the 20th century, corn, wheat, and other grains were introduced, alongside technological advances in cattle raising. Later, transgenic soybean monoculture took over part of the cultivated hectares, and the agricultural frontier expanded by 70% at the cost of deforestation.
According to Hernán Giardini, coordinator of the forests campaign of the NGO Greenpeace Argentina, Chaco lost around 50% of its forests in a little more than a century. This was a part of a large green cover that acts as a carbon sink and is part of the Great American Chaco, the most important ecoregion in Latin America after the Amazon. It is known for its biodiversity and its forests that extend through Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil covering an area of more than 1 million square kilometers.
Contrary to popular belief, the results for the population were not good, says Gerardo Martínez, agronomist engineer, Ph.D. in Geography and expert in social development. “Technification, land concentration and the monoculture crises triggered strong rural emigration, unemployment and poverty”, Martínez says.
According to a study by the Universidad Nacional del Nordeste, from 1980 to 2010, the rural population of the province decreased by 36%. In addition, the report of the National Institute of Census and Statistics (INDEC) revealed in 2020 that 53.6% of the population of Gran Resistencia, the capital of Chaco, lives in poverty, in an area that concentrates almost half of the province’s population.
Large scale, environmental impact and a balance of trade in jeopardy
On the outskirts of Roque Saénz Peña, the area where the second complex is to be built, there is a pig farm at the end of a gravel road. Cristian Grancic has been in charge of this farm for seven years. “Before, the owner had it as a corral where there were some piglets that he slaughtered on the weekend; then he started with 50 mothers and now we are at 500,” said Grancic. He is skeptical about large-scale pig farms. For him, their installation is not good news and he distrusts the 360 jobs created per complex estimated by the governor’s office. “According to the government, the Chinese farms are going to generate employment, but what jobs are going to be generated if this farm with 500 mothers is run with five people?” he exclaimed while pointing to two workers entering the feed room. According to him, due to the industrialization of the processes, for every 100 mothers, one job is created, so the number of jobs would be less than what the governor stated.
Grancic worries that the trade balance will break down once Chinese companies enter the business. “If they sell here, they’ll kill us. Then there is the issue of corn and soybeans needed for food. They are going to buy everything,” he said. Grancic refers to the consequences for small and medium-sized producers if Chinese companies market pork in the territory, as sales prices would be reduced. He also believes that it will be more difficult for them to compete with large companies when it comes to buying corn and soybeans, necessary for pig feed, which would end up creating disadvantages for local producers.
When asked if he would accept Chinese investment to increase the farm to 2,400 mothers, he said, “No, I wouldn’t. The environmental impact is too great.” Grancic talked about the problems related to waste and how metals on the farm oxidize due to the concentration of methane gas and ammonia: “It’s a very abrasive environment, there are no mosquitoes here,” he said, associating these gases with the insects’ disappearance.
Like Grancic, some environmental organizations have warned of the pollution problems associated with this type of production, whose waste and slurry can end up in soils, groundwater, and rivers, causing health problems for the population and damaging ecosystems. This has already occurred in Chile, Mexico, Europe and the United States, where pig production is carried out on a large scale.
The decomposition of organic matter in manure fields and lagoons produces greenhouse gas emissions of methane, ammonia, and nitrous oxide. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the global livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
According to official sources, the farms will maintain some distance between them and will be installed within a radius of 100 km, as they are establishments of about 30,000 animals. Several hectares will be needed to place the multiple industrial sheds required for the production phases: gestation, maternity, and fattening, which could generate more deforestation in a province that already outpaces the rest of the region. In addition, the distance separating the sheds could be reduced, producing bad odors and pollution in a concentrated manner, as each area will have the waste and residues of some 150,000 animals.
Memory and resistance in a punished Chaco
Simón Álvarez, a member of the Qom indigenous community and councilman of La Leonesa – one of the areas where some of the pig farms will be established – was seated around a table in one of the community centers run by the organization in which he participates. The people in charge of the soup kitchen were preparing warm “chipas” for the neighborhood children, a traditional Guaraní dish made from cassava and cheese.
Álvarez recalled the problems the community faced when a company dedicated to rice cultivation set up next to the town, on the banks of the river. The agrochemicals used by the rice company contaminated the water and air, making the neighbors sick. La Leonesa, along with other localities, are known as “fumigated towns”, places where the use of agrochemicals to sustain monocultures caused the rates of leukemia, malformations, miscarriages and other health problems to skyrocket.
The installation of pig factories revives their worst memories. According to Álvarez, the waste from the farms would once again contaminate the river, affecting the health of the people.
For example, the slurry or semi-liquid waste resulting from the mixture of pigs’ defecation, urine, washing water and leftover feed usually accumulates in ponds or pits of the pig farms and is used to fertilize the fields. As explained by the physician Ángela Prado, the problem arises when the concentration of slurry and waste exceeds the capacity of the environment to absorb them. At that moment, there is a high concentration of nitrates and other toxic chemical components contained in the slurry, which contaminates aquifers and fields, affecting the health of the communities. According to Prado, there have been reports of diseases linked to the contamination of large-scale pig farms, such as blue baby syndrome, a disease that causes respiratory distress, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, convulsions and coma. In addition, according to the doctor, prolonged exposure to high levels of nitrates can cause cancer in adults.
Like Álvarez, some experts warn of other impacts on people’s health associated with intensive pig production. This is caused by antibiotics and other compounds given to pigs to accelerate growth, which can produce antimicrobial resistance that is transferred from animals to humans. “The habitual use of antibiotics as growth engines in feed rations for pigs can generate health problems when those antibiotics reach humans through the consumption of meat from animals fattened in this way,” said Alejandro Perez, responsible for pig production at Senasa, the main agency in charge of guaranteeing health in animal and plant production in Argentina.
“Intensive or scale production carries more risks, for which careful monitoring is needed,” he emphasized. Pérez, in turn, warned about the danger of zoonotic diseases such as brucellosis, which causes undulant fever and infertility in humans. However, for him, the most dangerous is swine influenza, “a zoonotic disease, with pandemic potential, whose variants can be highly pathogenic and are of worldwide concern.”
Álvarez is also concerned about the community lands where they grow food and organic cotton, activities that provide work for people in the area who live in poverty and are affected by high unemployment. These activities contribute to sustaining the soup kitchen, where local children are guaranteed one meal a day. However, the provincial government should create opportunities for locals and not for foreign companies, he said. “In addition, there is the fear that the companies will take the lands that we, the natives, have been recovering through struggle and for which many people have died.”
As the councilman explains, Chaco first experienced a strong resistance to the colonial onslaught, and then again to the land concentrating projects, such as agribusiness. According to Diego I. Domínguez, Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Chaco is one of the provinces with the highest number of Indigenous and peasant conflicts over land, water, forests, and woodlands. Through struggles, some lands were recovered by their original owners. This process is still ongoing due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier and new mega-projects such as the Chinese pork factories.
The fear of losing the land is the fear of losing the forests, the food, the memory of a people, and their culture, a complexity that Carlos Leiva, a member of the Qom indigenous community, tried to explain. He recalled how his people fought to recover their lands; a long conflict that was rewarded in 1999 with the return of 150,000 hectares in the southern region of the Impenetrable.
Although it is an impoverished area, for Leiva and other neighbors in the community, the establishment of the Chinese companies is part of the problem and not the solution. Leiva leaned against the trunk of a carob tree, one of the oldest trees in Chaco, and said: “We are not against progress or improvement, but things have to be done differently. They have to be respectful of the environment and strengthen the activities that we already do here.”