Space and Politics: The Fields of Desolation

The southeastern province of Salta around Las Lajitas is the epicenter of the soaring boom in northern Argentina and the scene of one of the most dramatic spatial transformations that have occurred in the last decades in the Cone South. The village is surrounded by vast fields similar to those of the Pampas plain and worked by last generation agricultural machinery, many of them automated. The latest dual-cab vans are a recurring presence on routes and service stations. The huge silos managed by Bunge, Olmedo Agropecuaria or Noble Argentina in Las Lajitas and Piquete Cabado are the largest structures in the entire region and the materialization of the model of industrial agriculture that has colonized its space. For soy apologists in the area, most of them come from "the south" (Rosario, Buenos Aires), this is the kind of space that defines development and progress.

A few days ago, I found myself in Joaquin V. Gonzalez, south of Las Lajitas, with a family with whom I became friends in my previous visits to the region, Creole people who grew up tending cattle on the mountain. We were talking about the fields that today dominate the landscape between Gonzalez and Las Lajitas and Juan, a 35-year-old man, told me: "It's all countryside. It is a desolation. " The forcefulness of his description of what the fields mean to him impressed me. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned our visit, years ago, to a place known as "Los Indiecitos" and which the creoles of the area venerated as a source of miraculous powers, in an area then protected from clearings. The place consisted of two very modest tombs, resting the remains of indigenous children killed in a distant past, located on a small hill where people left offerings of candles and bottles of water to ask them for miracles. When I mentioned "Los Indiecitos", Juan's mother, who was with us, sighed an "uh" that sounded like a lament. "There's nothing left," he said with a hint of sadness as he shook his head. "They have dismantled everything." Bulldozers had devastated the tombs just as they did with small rural cemeteries whose bone debris is now part of the soy fields. The clearing, in other words, has destroyed in addition to forests and homes an infinity of other places loaded with affections and meanings. Juan's father added indignantly, "The clearing will leave a desert."

The desolation of the soy fields is also expressed in the type of life that grows in their womb. A defining feature of agribusiness is that its high mechanization requires very little labor. Driving on the provincial route 5 north and south of Las Lajitas is to find fields that feel socially empty, because they live in very few people and there are almost no houses. These fields are regularly sprayed with Monsanto's poison to kill any kind of living form that would counteract the growth of soybeans, genetically modified by Monsanto to resist its herbicides and pesticides. Agribusiness is therefore a project of geographical administration that seek to limit through chemical saturation of space that only grows in vast expanses is a single way of life: in this case, the soybean patented by Monsanto. As in the rest of the Argentine soybean, there are stories in the area, generally told in a low voice, about the increase in cancer cases, on people sprayed by airplanes "as if they were flies" and "drift" from the poison to the peoples due to the winds.

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In the dining rooms of the service stations in the region, I often lunch or have coffee next to tables full of men who have just gotten off double cab vans. Most of them have rosarino or porteño accents; they usually do not talk about anything else, either on their cell phones, or on the vicissitudes of the crop and the soybean market. In Las Lajitas I have talked to several of them. If there is something that defines them is their indifference to those desolate landscapes where for them before there was nothing.

  • Adam Floyd