Due to the demand from Asian markets, the price of soya beans increased 28% during the period 2002-2012, with a net profit of between 20 and 30% per ha. This pushed up the demand for agricultural land and led to the rapid clearance of extensive areas of native forests in the semi-arid Chaco and Tucuman-Bolivian Moist Forest ecosystems in the North and East of Salta Province in Northwest Argentina. During the period 1998 to 2007, some 650 000 ha of native forest were removed, bringing the historic clearance total in Salta to two million ha.

The native people make a living using wood and non-wood forest resources; marketing handicrafts represents the main source of continuous income for the seven indigenous groups living in the North and East of Salta Province: Chané, Chiriguano, Chulupí, Chorote, Tapiete, Toba and Wichi, especially for the last two who are trappers and collectors. In 2005, approximately 50 000 people were registered as native including all the groups mentioned who represent 4% of the population. The few indigenous people living here have an unsatisfied basic needs rate above 80% and are the poorest people in the country.

In view of this, I decided to identify the species of trees and shrubs used by the native groups to make handicrafts and to analyze the relationship between their availability, forest clearance and the environmental impacts caused by other economic activities. I collected and photographed handicrafts (mainly ashtrays, bags, bracelets, furniture, hanging ornaments, masks, necklaces and spoons) at locations representative of three different ecosystems used by the Indians: 1) Semi-arid Chaco;  2) Transition Forest and 3) Tucuman-Bolivian Moist Forest.

In Embarcación and Tartagal, the exotic Fabaceae Leucaena leuococephala is the species most frequently used for seed, followed by two Euphorbiaceae: Ricinus comunis (also introduced) and Sapindus saponaria. In these locations, we can also observe the use of the wood of Amburana cearensis and Pterogyne nitens (Fabaceae), Calycophyllum multyflorum (Rubiaceae), Ceiba chodatii (Bombacaceae), Cedrela balansae (Meliaceae), Cordia trichotoma (Boraginaceae), Calycophyllum  multyflorum (Rubiaceae) and Heliocarpus popayanensis (Tiliaceae). These species suffer from intensive illegal logging, but the Indians only use pieces discarded by sawmills.

In the semi-arid Chaco the species used are Acacia aromo, A. caven, Caesalpinea paraguariensis, Gleditsia amorphoide, Mimozyganthus carinatus, Prosopis alba (Fabaceae), Aspidosperma quebracho blanco (Apocynaceae), Bromelia serra (Bromeliaceae), Bulnesia sarmientoi  (Zygophyllaceae) and Schinopsis quebracho-colorado (Anacardiaceae). Here, the main ecological impacts are overgrazing and illegal logging. Although the Indians have to travel longer distances to obtain Bromelia due to the intensive use of Bromelia fiber to weave bags, the supplies necessary to make handicrafts are still available, because most of the seeds used to make necklaces and other items come from exotic species, for which felling for lumber occurs on a small scale.

The main problem for the Indians is to have access to their traditional sources of food and supplies in the forests. The intensive transformation of the original landscape for agricultural use, is causing the eviction of the native settlers despite their ownership claims over the land. Even though the Argentinean Constitution recognises the natives’ right to the land, there is a lack of experience in the management of land claims while social policies are weak, focused on small subsidies to achieve short term electoral objectives. In Argentina, native forest is disappearing because investors know they can make a profit of USD 200 per ha for harvesting soya beans. They don’t know how much money they could make under a multiple species model of business using the same land, so sustainable use of biodiversity is simply not considered. While Salta Province generates about USD 200 million per year in export taxes for grains, the provincial government has no control over that money, which is in the hands of the federal executive.

With only 3% of the total population, Salta Province never figures in federal government priorities. Thus agriculture is eliminating the native forest without taking account of the value of nature, while the federal government doesn’t reinvest the taxes collected in the areas that are generating that richness. After strong pressure of the media and NGOs, in 2007 the law 26331 to protect native forest was approved, establishing payments for environmental services as well as financial support for the use of the forest for small farmers and indigenous communities. Despite that, the amount of money offered to land owners is far below the profit given by agriculture, so the clearing of the forest continues.

On the other hand, just giving ownership of land to Indian communities without the eradication of overgrazing and illegal logging, does not guarantee good forest management, but rather the continuity of poverty and degradation of the ecosystem. To solve this problem of inequity and poverty, it is necessary to define a more inclusive economy, to implement sustainable use development projects with indigenous communities and to consider the real value of forest services and biodiversity.

Francisco R. Barbarán, Argentina National Research Council (CONICET), Area Economy, Management Sciences and Public Administration: frbarbaran@yahoo.com.ar