Argentina on environmental alert due to new law reforms

More than 100 organizations have joined together to put a stop to the new reforms to the Law on Forests, Glaciers and Fisheries; try to reverse some points and negotiate at the last moment.

Many environmental organizations are concerned that among the 664 proposed amendments to the omnibus law, some aim to sabotage and deregulate the nature protection law.

Just over a month before the new government was ratified as part of the Paris Agreement in Dubai, it was already causing concerns in the environmental sector. In a public letter (63113.pdf), more than 100 organizations described the ruling party's proposal as "regressive", demanded the rejection of some aspects of it and requested the formation of specialized committees to consider this initiative. They are trying to send warnings to various blocs in Congress and have achieved some victories.

"It seems that we want to distance the State from its central role of control and supervision of environmental issues that cannot be entrusted to individuals.” – Manuel Jaramillo, executive director of one of the Wildlife organizations. Other organizations called on all civil society to sign a petition aimed at preventing the reforms from going ahead.

Initially, the omnibus bill sought to modify four environmental laws: the Forestry Law (26.331), the Anti-Burning Environmental Protection Law (26.562), the Glacier Law (26.639) and the Federal Fisheries Law (24.922). In addition, this package also includes a chapter on "energy transition", with the task of creating a minimum basis for the development of the internal market for emissions rights.

However, shortly after its publication and many groups of governors, parliamentarians and activists publicly expressed their opposition, the dialogue wing of the ruling party promised changes. Last week, both the Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Francos, and the Deputy Minister of the Environment, Ana Lamas, admitted that mistakes had been made. “It was an error of interpretation, of course the team in charge of writing the document was wrong in some aspects”Lamas admitted. Both officials said that there would be changes in some aspects related to fishing, native forests and the control of intentional burning.

The remaining provisions remain the same and are expected to be discussed in extraordinary sessions that will end on January 31. In the last few hours, a committee representing environmental organizations met with Lamas to present their points of view and reach a consensus. There, the organizations reiterated their concerns and proposed delaying the consideration of environmental issues beyond the comprehensive regulatory package in regular sessions.

According to the organizations, not only environmental threats could affect the country in the medium and long term, but various international agreements to which Argentina is a party could also be weakened. “All reforms violate the principle of non-regression of the Escazú Agreement [dedicated to access to justice in environmental matters]. In addition, there are several points that are contradictory with the general environmental law itself.", denounced José Esain, lawyer for Aves Argentinas, stating that these reforms could affect the way the world perceives Argentina in the future on environmental and human rights issues.

And this image is no less important for the government: the international market is paying more and more attention to issues of environmental protection, justice and climate responsibility. “If we leave aside the demanding markets associated with the first world, we will be left with the markets that the president least sought.a”, stated Hernán Casañas, general director of Aves Argentinas. This is something that does not escape the Undersecretary of Environment. “It was not seen when the law was written, but it can prevent many exports such as leather, livestock and fishing.”, he acknowledged.

Despite this discouraging start, Lamas told the Chamber of Deputies that he would seek consensus on the most controversial environmental issues regarding the law reforms. However, organizations must ensure that their voices are heard and this means that the debate will deepen. One way to do this is to evaluate what would happen in our country if we moved forward in the spirit of the Miley Project.

Forests: alert for deforestation and uncontrolled forest fires

Law reforms

Regarding the Native Forest Law, the Executive intends to change two aspects that several experts consulted considered “the heart of the law".

Firstly, it seeks to introduce changes to allow human activity in yellow and red category forest areas (with the corresponding environmental permits) and in green areas without permission. In the first two cases, these are strictly protected areas, they have a very high natural value and represent approximately 80% of the natural forest area. Green zones, although they support human activity, still require an environmental impact assessment.

According to Lamas, some of these law reforms will be reviewed because “threaten important international trade exchanges and financial support with Europe”. A possible scenario is that the yellow and red zones remain protected and the green zone remains deregulated.

But there is another situation that also worries environmentalists and that affects the financing of forest protection. In short, the executive in its Law reforms seeks to eliminate the regulatory budget threshold that the law receives through the National Fund for the Enrichment and Conservation of Native Forests. Instead, he wants the amount of money for forest protection to be specifically regulated in the national budget.

"Considering that in 15 years the fund has received between 3 and 15 percent of its allocation, the proposed change only worsens the situation. Now there will not be even the slightest participation”Jaramillo warned.

Lamas confirmed that this provision would be maintained in the final text, but expressed confidence in tools such as external financing and suggested the government's willingness to cooperate. “I understand that if there is a floor everyone feels calmer, but this is something that will remain. Surely the National Executive Branch is going to propose the same percentages", he stated. However, Jaramillo fears financial cuts even greater than the current ones, and although the state budget is one of the sources of financing, drastic cuts, he said, would make the measure no longer effective.

Regarding the reforms to the Burning Control Law, which regulates intentional fires, there are two amendments. One of the fundamental aspects that the standard regulates is that to carry out burning, a permit must be obtained and a series of requirements must be met such as why, where and how it will be done. The new project does not include so-called fires set with the objective of “environmental protection of the land.” In such cases, no license will be required. It also provides the opportunity to obtain implied consent for burning if the province responsible for issuing these permits does not resolve the process within 30 days.

According to Andrés Napoli, executive director of the Foundation for Natural Resources and the Environment (FARN), providing greater flexibility for burning will contribute to the spread of fires. In the country, 95% of fires are caused by intentional fires and control is usually poor, so experts predict a worrying scenario if this initiative continues.

"Burning a forest is less painful than breaking glass. These law reforms reinforce a problem that already exists. Look at what happened in Brazil during Jair Bolsonaro's government, controls were also made more flexible and indiscriminate burning proliferated.”Napoli said.

Lamas said some points could be reconsidered. He admitted that “30 days are few” for the license to expire. “We would also seek to eliminate the word tacit. However, people who need to burn can't wait forever for approval either.", he claimed.

Glaciers: water in danger?

Law reforms

Current glacier legislation provides for the protection of all areas and prohibits commercial activities in them. All types of ice blocks and the areas in which they are found are taken into account. However, after the law reforms proposed by the executive branch, some areas would remain unprotected.

"What these changes do is reduce the area to be protected. Not only does it eliminate part of the periglacial environment, but it leaves it up to the provinces to determine what can be protected and what cannot."explains Lucas Ruiz, geologist and researcher at the Argentine Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (Ianigla).

The bill reforms plan to modify two provisions that regulate what types of ice can receive protection. The new requirements stipulate that glaciers that remain solid for more than two years, have an area of ​​one hectare or more and perform a vital water function must be included. All of this must be valued by the provinces and their laws. If these requirements are not met, the province will be able to open up to many different industries.

The argument of Ruiz et al. is that the requirements relate to the method, location and timing of assessing the periglacial environment. “These areas are large reservoirs that feed the rivers to a greater or lesser extent depending on the year.
When it rains and snows heavily, glaciers can only supply 10% of the water to the river, but when a drought occurs, this figure can increase to 60%. That is why depending on the year, the water importance can change, but also the size of the ice and the extent
"He added.

One of the most vulnerable areas to climate change is the glacial area. Ianigla explained that glaciers are retreating rapidly due to rising temperatures and drought. The institute estimates that the amount of ice lost each year is equivalent to enough water to supply the entire population of Argentina for a year and a half.
In his speech in the Chamber of Deputies, Lamas assured that no active glacial or subglacial region would be affected, and that the only area that could not be protected under provincial criteria would be the so-called inactive zone.

For environmental groups, the changes are a response to historic demands from the mining industry, which has required more and more permits since the passage of the Glacier Law almost 14 years ago. They maintain that the development of industry towards the glacier zone is threatening water, a resource that is under intense competition in the Andean region.

Fishing: consequences of making controls more flexible in the law reforms

Law reforms

Although the changes in the federal fishing system were the first deregulatory measures included in the Omnibus Law reforms, environmental groups remain very concerned about the proposal.

The proposed changes promoted a more central role for the national executive in decision-making, limiting provincial participation, which was seen as a blow to the advantage that Argentine workers have over foreigners because there is greater international openness for business. .

It also contemplated making the legal requirements for the issuance of fishing licenses more flexible and voided the obligation to bring fishing products to Argentine ports.

The last point is one of those that most alerted the environmental field. The organizations affirm that the impossibility of ships reaching any Argentine port means the disappearance of one of the central forms of control, surveillance, inspection and traceability of national fishing.

Under pressure from the governors of the coastal provinces, fishing businessmen and environmental protection organizations and associations, the most sensitive aspects of the reform have been left aside. However, it is not yet clear whether any of the proposed changes will be included in the final text.

Energy transition: carbon credits for companies

The draft general law reforms develop only one proposal in the energy transition chapter: the creation of an emissions rights market.

It is a type of trade-linked strategy that aims to reduce emissions in various manufacturing sectors and allows companies to trade carbon dioxide, the gas considered one of the main causes of the climate crisis.

The operating principle of these systems is based on emissions limits that will be set in each productive sector. Under the proposal, the same director would be responsible for setting limits for each industry and each company based on unclear criteria.

Once a maximum level has been set, companies should reorganize their production structures to avoid exceeding that level. If they achieve this, they will receive carbon credits equivalent to one ton of CO2. The fewer greenhouse gases they emit, the more credits they accumulate.

On the contrary, if companies exceed the established limits, they are subject to sanctions also set by the regulator and can acquire loans from more stable companies. In theory, this strategy is great. The United Nations even recommends these types of systems to help reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, and several countries have adopted this approach. “However, carbon market regulation around the world is very weak.”Warns Casañas.

Experts say that in many cases, companies or countries falsified data or orchestrated tricks to benefit from these loans. Environmental groups say this strategy should be implemented last and that there are other strategies the government should develop.

They are also concerned that the Executive intends to centralize both the determination of the limits and the types of sanctions; They fear that there are industry interests that are clouding their judgment in these law reforms.

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