11 Aug 2020 UTT and the struggle for land in Argentina
Facundo Cuesta, Huerquen Comunicación
“Why is such a deep taboo to discuss agrarian reform; to talk about land in Argentina?” asks Rosalía Pellegrini of the national coordination of the Unión de Trabajadorxs de la Tierra (The Union for Land workers, UTT), getting the conversation started. Answering her own rhetorical question, she adds: “because there is a dominant economic and cultural power that founded this nation on the slaughter of native tribes while also at war with sector of Argentine society. These people kept ownership of the land and carried out an economically liberal model that served the interests of a small sector of Argentine society. They still remain an economic power today, and these same people were in government for the last four years [The government of president Macri’s right-wing ‘Cambiemos’ coalition 2016-2019]. That powerful sector, with not a stain on its character, still pretends to maintain the representation and the synthesis of the agricultural interests in Argentina [the “Campo”], but this power created a speculative agricultural sector in which land and power is concentrated in just a few hands, as we witnessed in early 2020 before the quarantine when Argentine factory bosses locked out their workers who asked to keep their wages in line with inflation.”
The cold hard numbers from the 2018 National Agricultural Census reflect the hurt in rural Argentina. Since 2002 a full quarter of all agricultural establishments (EAPs) — like family farms — have been lost. Since 1988 the loss has been 41.5%. Meanwhile, with this concentration in ownership, the average surface area per EAP went from 550 to 690 hectares. At the top of this pyramid the Argentine 1% concentrate 36.4% of the property while, at the bottom, 55% of the producers own only 2.25% of the land. And that’s just property ownership, which already leaves out a lot of factors.
“Today the land problems revolve around the pressure exerted by the soybean export model. Before that it was wheat, and further back, raising cattle (the common denominator is a focus on exports). The concentration of land (whether owned by Argentine nationals or foreign ownership — whether leased to producers or not — obviously makes it difficult for small producers to get access land for their family (peasant) agriculture. Nevertheless they produce most of the food eaten by Argentines. So the land struggle was a focus of the UTT from day one, from when the organization emerged.”
A Proposal to solve a thousand problems
Rosalía alludes to the beginning of the UTT, to the time of the first meetings between producers: “I’m talking about when we were just two or three grass-roots groups, 60 comrades. We recognised then that all of the sectors problems derived from a lack of access to the land. Every month you had to pay a really high land rent. As the traditional production is basically the agribusiness model, there is a dependency on inputs (machinery, seeds, fertilizers etc…) priced in US Dollars which is difficult to pay in local devalued currency. If on top of that, you don’t have your own machinery, to deal with all those costs you have to exploit yourselves, exploit each other. This means you and your family work from sunrise to sunset. Finally, in order to sell what you have produced you have to go through middlemen, from one intermediary to another, and so you end up being paid very little for your produce. The vast majority of those who produce vegetables are not owners of the land that they work.”
Back then, by means of workshops, incorporating tools from popular education, including drawings and schematics, we didn’t just enumerate the challenges we added counterproposals (solutions) for each: “This is how the project of the Integral Agricultural Colony for Urban Supply (CAIAU) was born. An holistic scheme beyond just access to land, with organization, agroecology, sharing tools and equipment and direct sales from the producer to the consumer”.
In 2013, the organization occupied land in “Pereyra Iraola” park, “these were “abandoned lands covered by burned cars and rubbish”. The next year the UTT camped beside the main motorway between Buenos Aires and the capital of the Province of Buenos Aires, “La Plata”. Using black nylon tents this area was occupied under threat of repression. The reaction forced the intervention of various officials, including the province’s minister for agriculture.
“It was there that we first proposed Agricultural Colonies, active farming Communities that are not just about getting access to land, as I mentioned, rather the UTT proposal was more comprehensive, more holistic. And so we began to talk about agroecology. I remember that from the time of our struggle the national government agency for agriculture (INTA) began to focus more on agroecology, in conjunction with the organization.
Jáuregui and Campana
The struggle opened a process of negotiation with the Argentine State to recognise the legitimacy of the call and to take up the organization’s proposal. In this framework, the possibility of implementing the proposals on public lands was explored, and two locations were pinpointed: the Ramayon Institute in the town of Jauregui, near Luján, and Campana, both in the province of Buenos Aires close to the city. These were lands that delegates of the UTT had already visited, “agricultural lands approximately 70 or 80 hectares”. But toward the end of the second presidential term of the centre-left Peronist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchener, the negotiations stagnated for a year, and were left with an inconclusive: “Yes and no!” answer.
“That’s when we held a large assembly, with more than 200 comrades, where we proposed that “the only land that we’ll get access to is land which we occupy” and we planned the simultaneous occupation of both locations: 100 comrades went to Campana and another 100 to Jáuregui, with a tractor and a lumber truck for both locations. To make a long story short, the two groups managed their objectives. “Campana’s team arrived first and started unloading and working with the tractor. When we arrived in (Jáuregui) Luján, the same thing happened. As the draft of an horticultural project had already been circulated in government institutions, we had a successful start. When the police arrived, we put it to them that we were there for that project and we began negotiations. This went on for three days of multiple meetings, many changes of heart, sometimes positive, sometimes not. And at one point, the negotiating team came back from the Capital with the great news that we had won our lands. I have photos of that, we were all so emotional, we cooked up a pig, I remember, we were very happy. I remember Martita, who is one of our local inspirational personalities here, who said: “We had won our freedom”… It was huge!”.
The attempted occupation in Campana did not work out, but with the signing of the lease agreement at Ramayón Jáuregui (Lujan) the agricultural colony was christened “the “20th of April/Darío Santillán”. That colony has just had its fifth birthday, and is a working demonstration an excellent experience of peasant-based agroecology in all of its aspects. In addition to the land itself and the technical or agricultural productive aspects, prices have been determined, as have distribution-related issues, the environment, housing, health, and education, have all been defined. What began as adult literacy workshops are now an autonomous educational project for primary and secondary schools, with an agroecological orientation, approved by the State. In the Ramayón courtyard there is a plaque commemorating the first group of graduates from these schools.
On the fourth birthday of the colony, April 20th, 2019, Marta gave a speech: “I have been part of the UTT For eight or nine years. We conducted a dignified struggle to achieve this, for dignified work, dignified housing and a dignified life. First we camped together with our comrades, and all 53 poor families, we have achieved this. We came with the agroecological plan, which is good healthy food, we made the switch from working with chemicals to working without them and proved it can be done. Now we do have time for our families, time for our children. And I’m very proud.”
With the consolidation of the Jáuregui experience, the proposal from CAIAU took off in the rest of the territories where the UTT has a presence. This way, with varying levels of development at different locations, today’s colonies are germinating in different parts of the province of Buenos Aires, in the river city of Gualeguaychú on the Border with Uruguay, in the Mesopotamian province of “Entre Ríos” and in the port of Puerto Piray in Misiones closer to Brazil in the north.
On the lands recuperated from the “Arauco” company
After an intense struggle in 2013, the organization of Independent Producers of Piray (PIP) achieved a law which expropriated 600 hectares from the forestry multinational, ‘Arauco’, which once owned 10% of the total land mass of the province of Misiones. Of these 600 hectares, already 166 hectares are in peasant possession. “There were oceans of pine trees, entire peasant and native communities were made to disappear,” says Miriam Samudio, one of the PIP spokespersons, who joined UTT in 2015.
Miriam was a protagonist in the process of recovering this land and today she is also one of those constructing the colony: “We integrated the families to work together. Each family group has its own dedicated family plots and projects and we also work some land as a community together. Today we are 97 families, working 56 hectares dedicated to families, and 15 hectares as a collective work the commons lands. We source the tools and the seeds, we plan in meetings and assemblies, we train each other and share knowledge. The current tack is to investigate value-added production beyond the primary production of planting and harvesting. In this way we are building “The Misiones province that we want!” through a different production model. We say no to agrochemicals, and we’ve had enough of transgenic corn! We are demonstrating, not in a futuristic sense, but right now, that it is possible to work the land this way, and we are adding comrades and producers to this struggle.”
Where there were tree monocultures with agrotoxins, without people or biodiversity, today there is agro-ecological food production, environmental care and re-greening communities.
The UTT also investigated going down the legislative route (writing laws). Though the right to access land is contemplated in the new Argentine law, (number 27,118) with the following name: “REPARACIÓN HISTÓRICA DE LA AGRICULTURA FAMILIAR PARA LA CONSTRUCCIÓN DE UNA NUEVA RURALIDAD EN LA ARGENTINA” or “Historical Reparation of Family Agriculture; towards a new Argentine rural reality”, a law approved in 2015, but which, to this day, is still awaiting regulation (and hence cannot come into effect till this happens).
In 2016, the UTT presented a bill to the Argentine congress for the creation of the public credit trust fund for family agriculture (CEPRAF), a species of government-sponsored rural mortgage. Like the “Procrear” system — a government credit used to help buy a home — this proposed soft credit system would allow families producing on rented land to access their own land parcels. The presentation was accompanied by a mobilization and by camping out in front of the Congress. In 2018 it was presented again with more signatures but it was blocked and, with time, it lost its status in parliament because it did not ever get treated in a commission on time.
From Verdurazo to Food Sovereignty
Back in May 2014, when the proposal of agricultural colonies but before the occupying the land in Jáuregui, a dawn broke over the Plaza de Mayo (in front of the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires) now replete with neatly arranged UTT stalls. Under the stalls were piles of crates of vegetables offered at bargain prices. All round these stalls were people buying and packing their bags with vegetables as fast as they could. The producer families were selling the vegetables at the same rates they got from middlemen. They had left their fields and come to the city to demonstrate to consumers how difficult things were for the sector and, at the same time, to present a concrete alternative to solve this via the colonies. They called their mass vegetable sales the “Verdurazo” (Mega-Veg!) Verdura is Spanish for vegetables.
During Macri’s government (2016-2019) these scenes multiplied all across Argentina as poverty and hunger advanced in parallel with high inflation (40% per year) coupled with government austerity. The Macri government however, chose to dismantle public policies for the family-farming sector. Thousands of people came to each ‘Verdurazo’ and so tonnes of food reached the most needy.
For Rosalía, “one of the smartest tools in the UTT’s toolbox for policy struggle were ‘Verdurazos’, a theory confirmed by the replication of this tactic by many other organizations and by the people in general. The Verdurazo no longer belongs to the UTT, but to the people.”
By putting the focus on feeding people, “this brought a new twist to the concept of ‘Food Sovereignty’ ( https://viacampesina.org/en/what-are-we-fighting-for/food-sovereignty-and-trade/ ). Food Sovereignty is a banner struggle of Via Campesina International, but it is a slogan which was always more understood by peasant producers and some urban activists, than by the rich in the gentrified barrios. The concept was never well understood in the more well healed barrios of Buenos Aires. Ask a resident of a ‘nice’ neighbourhood like Palermo or Boedo what Food Sovereignty means, the kind of people who shop at a locally run Asian corner store. Yet these Mega-Veg discounted sales made it possible to put the peasant’s agenda of ‘Food Sovereignty’ on the table of all Argentines. With the vegetables came the simple questions we always ask:
– What are you eating?
– Who produces what you eat?
– How is it produced?
– How do we live, those of us who produce this food?
Thus, the Verdurazo markets, which help plant the topic of “Food Sovereignty”, also allows for people to move from suffering and reclaiming their rights to a space where they can build and start to make decisions.
The link between food sovereignty, the soil and the seeds that grow in it and the peasant’s hands and agroecology are inseparable. None of these exist within a vacuum. The powerful proposal of agricultural colonies as constructed within the UTT make this evident to society in general, while the organization deals in a concrete way with primary needs like food.
“When you begin to develop a consciousness to become aware who these people are — the people who produce the food — and how we live as landless peasants, and you see how food is produced, one starts to become aware of a agricultural model that is nonsensical. This is what it means to break down the alienation between what we had then and we have now with what we eat, one discovers a direct relationship to health, a direct relationship with the national economic and the societal development of the nation. So this generated a relationship, a bridge, an indestructible alliance between the urban and the rural through the land where food is grown through food sovereignty; from food to access to land.”