Last time I wrote about the harsh poverty endured by millions of Argentines in the so-called villas de miseria that are found out on the outskirts of every large city in country. And the role that urban agriculture is playing in terms of enhancing life satisfaction and quality to many thousands of families, as well as contributing in a very tangible sense to household food security.
As I near the end of a month in the country, having visited five provinces and had dozens of conversations with government officials at all levels, as well as many urban gardeners and small-scale producers, I am constantly struck by the layers of complexity and difficulty that people here are grappling with.
Every country is complex, of course, and has its own particular history and development trajectory. In the case of Argentina, its history casts a very long shadow, which makes the task of change especially challenging.
Many of my conversations centre around la crisis of December 2001 as the period when the urban agriculture movement in this country went to an entirely new level. The Municipality of Rosario, which I mentioned last time, launched its Urban Agriculture program in 2001. The Province of Neuquén, where I visited last week, launched PRODA (Agro-Food Development Program) in 2003, as the country was exiting the worst of the crisis.
La crisis consisted in a localised ‘Great Depression’, starting in 1998 and continuing through to the end of 2002: during those years the Argentine economy shrank by 20%; 50% of Argentines were plunged into poverty and 25% into extreme poverty. By November 2001 Argentines had lost confidence in the banking system and were withdrawing cash en masse. The freeze of withdrawals led to the riots of 19-21 December, 2001, and an intense political turbulence which forced the President to resign and flee Government House in a helicopter.
Waves of bankruptcies and job losses followed, with the emergence of club de trueques, or swap-meets, not as something nice to do on a Sunday afternoon, but as a basic survival strategy. Another feature of the crisis were the so-called tomas – takeovers of bankrupt factories by workers, desperate to maintain their livelihoods.
As if such a crisis were not enough for the current generation to have to cope with, the country lived through an even more horrendous experience 25 years previously. This was the infamous ‘Dirty War‘ waged by a military dictatorship against its own people, from 1976-1983. Under the guise of ‘fighting’ small groups of leftist insurgents, the dictatorship established a national network of secret detention centres where tens of thousands of students, lawyers, doctors, teachers, trade unionists, social workers – in effect, anyone who was trying to work with poor people to help them assert their rights to a better life – were tortured and then ‘disappeared’, many thrown alive out of planes into the sea.
Most have never been found, and the psychosocial scars of this national trauma – now officially recognised and publicly described as ‘State terrorism’ – run deep indeed.
Over 500 children were born to pregnant women held in the detention centres. These babies were taken at birth from their mothers and placed with military families or their sympathisers. 116 have now been reunited with their birth families, in an ongoing process of national catharsis.
And for twenty years, the country’s economic fortunes have become hitched to the continued expansion of la sojera, a multi-million hectare swathe of territory – two-thirds or more of all arable land in the country – dedicated to one crop: chemical-hungry GM soy, destined for export to feed the pigs and chickens in the factory farms of Europe and China. It is a social and environmental catastrophe, but it brings in foreign currency for the government.
This is a tragic and troubled history, that would make many despair; yet countless thousands of Argentines are working hard to achieve a better future for their communities. I have been privileged to meet some of those people.