Since his Dec. 10 inauguration, Argentine President Javier Milei has pursued a program of austerity and deregulation. [Photo by Office of Argentine Presidency)
Argentina would weaken environmental regulation in areas including native-forest conservation, glacier protection and wildfire prevention if its Congress passes a legislative-reform package proposed by Javier Milei, the country’s new right-wing president.
Milei, who took office on Dec. 10, is a libertarian economist who entered public life two years ago by creating his own political party. He has capitalized on public anguish over Argentina’s ongoing economic decline, winning the presidency last year by beating candidates from two political parties that have dominated national politics for 20 years.
During his campaign, Milei denounced virtually all government regulation of business, including environmental controls, and denied the existence of human-caused climate change. In little over a month as president he has not moderated his views, pushing to curtail biodiversity-conservation efforts and greenhouse-gas reductions. In doing so, he has argued developing countries are being held to unfair standards.
“The cruelest aspect of the environmental agenda is that countries that became rich legitimately exploiting their natural resources now aim to assuage their guilt by punishing the poorest countries,” Milei said in a speech in January at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This, he asserted, has impeded growth of developing countries’ economies “for an alleged crime they didn’t commit.”
Argentina’s 23 provinces are granted “original control of the natural resources existing in their territory” under Article 124 of the country’s constitution, which means they effectively own the terrestrial, underground and coastal-marine resources in their territories. But under Article 41 of the constitution, the national Congress may enact laws establishing minimum standards of environmental protection that all provinces must follow in order to protect the right of all citizens to a healthy environment.
Three such laws are being targeted for modification by the Milei administration. One was enacted to control deforestation, principally in northern Argentina’s semi-arid Chaco region. Another aims to prevent mining projects from threatening glacial areas. The third is meant to reduce wildfire risks by curbing the use of burns to prepare cropland for planting.
The proposed changes form part of a massive, 634-article regulatory-reform package intended to reshape the country’s economic and social life under the title “Foundations and Starting Points for the Freedom of Argentines.”
Race to bottom feared
If the steps are enacted, provinces could theoretically ignore them and exercise their constitutional right to maintain or even tighten existing green standards. But experts believe most provinces will loosen their limits to match new, lower levels of federal protection in a bid to attract more private investment and counter the country’s ongoing economic crisis. From a policy perspective, many of these experts say, such a rollback would be a major reversal.
“If the [reform package] passes there will not only be concrete effects, but also symbolic ones,” Enrique Viale, president of the Argentine Association of Environmental Attorneys, told EcoAméricas this month. “The forest and glacier laws are the greatest achievements of Argentina’s environmental movement, which successfully pressed Congress for their passage, overcoming the strong economic interests that opposed them.”
Added Viale, who also spoke before lawmakers in January: “History shows the provinces think more about short-term economic needs than the federal government does, so I have no doubt that if they’re allowed to, the majority of them will move forward with less environmental protection and more extractive activity.”
The forest-protection legislation, enacted in 2007, obligates provinces to develop land-use plans that identify and conserve forested areas with the highest ecological value. The reforms proposed by the Milei administration would remove that requirement and allow provinces to authorize cutting anywhere. The deregulation package would also cut off national budget funding for provincial forest conservation programs and for landowners who keep their woodlands intact. The glacier-protection law, enacted in 2010, would be modified so that it no longer restricts mining and other development activity on seasonally frozen, glacier-adjacent land that also contributes meltwater to downslope streams and rivers. And a proposed change to the 2009 wildfire-prevention law would require authorities to consider all agricultural-burn requests approved if they haven’t been acted upon within 30 days.
Another expert who urged lawmakers to oppose the reform package was Andrés Nápoli, director of the nonprofit Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN). Nápoli contended that at a time when the world must act to curb climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification and pollution, the Argentine government is proposing to do the opposite.
A report by the Circle of Environmental Policies, a nonprofit Argentine grouping of green-policy experts and advocates, contends that a relaxation of environmental standards could cause problems for Argentina abroad. “Environmental considerations and standards are increasingly important with respect to trade, obtaining credit, and international participation,” says the report, which was presented to Argentine lawmakers last month.
Bill’s rationale challenged
The organization’s director, Eugenia Testa, asserts that as a result, the Milei administration’s deregulatory initiative could be anything but the magnet for foreign investment that its authors intend. “If the bill [becomes law], the effect will be the opposite of the one being sought because there will be less, rather than more, investment.”
Over 100 environmental groups have signed a letter calling on members of the Argentine Congress to reject the legislative package, arguing it will “affect the economic results of a range of activities that it aims to benefit.” They note that thanks to the forest law, 42 million hectares (162,000 sq. miles), or 80%, of Argentina’s 53 million hectares (205,000 sq. miles) of native forest currently have permanent protected status, but will lose it under the proposed legislative reforms.
The groups also argue that relaxing the glacier-protection law represents a surrender to mining companies eager to exploit high-Andean terrain. In 2008, that pressure prompted then-President Cristina Kirchner to veto Congress’s first attempt at a glacier-protection law. But a second attempt succeeded, with Kirchner allowing it to become law in 2010.
- Daniel Gutman
In the index: Newly inaugurated President Javier Milei visited an Argentine Antarctic base on Jan. 6. (Photo by Office of Argentine Presidency)