Over the last couple of decades, Argentina’s economic growth, like many countries in Latin America, has depended in large part on the extraction and exportation of natural resources: soy, corn, gas, minerals and oil. The dollars brought in from the commodity super cycle, which took off in the early 2000s, fuelled government spending on public services and bolstered incomes, and by 2012 half of all Argentines had joined the ranks of the middle-class, up from a third at the start of 2000. Agribusiness, oil and gas were good for Argentina, or so it seemed.

But that’s only half the story, according to a new report by Oxfam. The report, entitled “Unearthed: Land, power and inequality in Latin America,” argues that the move towards extractivist economies has come at a supreme cost: enormous inequality of land distribution. 

Land provides food and water; can increase in value, is an economic good that can be used to obtain credit, it confers a degree of power and economic, social and political autonomy. In the case of indigenous peoples, it is the “maximum expression of cultural and spiritual identity.” When it is concentrated in the hands of the few, the deleterious effects are numerous, according to Oxfam: poverty, marginalization, underdevelopment, land degradation and erosion of the democratic process.

“Latin America is the world’s most unequal region in terms of land distribution,” says the report, which based its conclusions on an analysis of numerous agricultural censuses and surveys. In Latin America, the largest 1% of farms concentrate half of all agricultural land, which is to say, “one percent of farms occupy more land than the remaining 99%.” This is worse even than income inequality in the region (also the highest in the world.)

And it’s getting worse, with concentration of land holdings worse than in the 1960s, when many countries attempted to remedy the problem via agrarian reforms.

How do specific countries fare?

Based on a comparison of extremes (the largest 1% of holdings compared with the remaining 99%), Colombia is the worst in the region for equitable land distribution, with 0.4% of all farms occupying 67% of all productive land. Chile and Paraguay also perform poorly: 70% of productive land is occupied by the largest 1%.

Argentina performs better, but only when compared to the worst of the worst. The largest 1% of land holdings occupy 35% of all agricultural land. These are huge estates, particularly in comparison with other countries in Latin America: while the average ‘large’ farm in the report was 2,000 hectares overall, in Argentina the figure was ten times that- here, the average big farm is 22,000 hectares. Meanwhile, 83% of the small holdings have only 13% of the territory.

Source: Oxfam
Source: Oxfam

Oxfam argues that this concentration of land holdings is due in great part to extractivism, which it defines as a “productive model based in the extraction and exploitation of natural resources to obtain large volumes of primary materials.” Acknowledging that approach has helped many economies achieve “unprecedented growth rates,” Oxfam argues that the damage done is far in excess of the revenue raised:

“When countries become dependent on exploiting their raw natural resources they risk international market volatility, high social costs and ever more accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a few. We see this manifested in various ways, for example in Bolivia and Paraguay where a handful of transnational companies now control most all of the soy trade,” argues Oxfam’s Latin America and the Caribbean director, Simon Ticehurst.

Argentina’s economy is not as reliant as Chile’s in terms of raw resources – where a variety of materials dominated by metals and minerals comprise 80% of the total value of exports – but it still leans heavily on vegetables and animals. Over 40% of exports are comprised of raw materials, and alongside Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, forms part of the soy frontier. In Argentina, 49% of productive land is dominated by this omnipresent oilseed; in Paraguay, this figure jumps to 68%.

Land is a central part of Argentine identity, and the source of what was once considered an illimitable wealth. This is, after all, a country that has been alternatively referred to as the “breadbasket” and “England’s paddock”, and where they say there was such bounty you used to be able to kill a cow and eat only its tongue.

However, inequality of distribution has almost always accompanied the national conversation. In Argentina, the call for ‘agrarian reform’ is almost as old as the hills. It’s not uncommon for people refer to their society as being basically “feudal”, with a landed elite that controls the reigns of power, and an underclass of impoverished, undervalued rural campesinos and indigenous people, who have no access to land holdings and the benefits that flow therefrom. Rural workers do not own land and are frequently reliant on precarious, seasonal work to try to carve livelihoods from. Many indigenous peoples are referred to as golondrinas, or sparrows, because they have no choice but to travel large distances each year to work on the harvest, temporary work that uproots them from their family and is offers only a meagre pay.

The report argues that concentration of land has led to “greater conflicts”. There has been dramatic evidence of this over the last week in the southern province of Chubut, where Mapuche and police officers have clashed on Benetton Group owned land that the a group of Mapuche have occupied for two years.

The challenge now, of course, is in attempting to improve access to land, when the primary model of economic growth in the region has been one of extractivism.