Issue of March, 10, 2007
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Small Towns on the "Endangered" List
By Marcela Valente

More than 600 of Argentina's small towns are in danger of disappearing, despite being in the country's most prosperous agricultural areas, where soy is king.

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 12 (Tierramérica).- Hundreds of small towns in Argentina's richest agricultural region are taking their last breaths as a result of the unregulated expansion of soybean fields, their growing isolation, and the government's indifference.

At risk of disappearing are 602 towns of fewer than 2,000 residents, another 124 that haven't seen population growth in a decade, and 90 that no longer figure in official statistics, says the Responde Association, a group dedicated to the social recovery of endangered towns.

Although a total of about 270,000 people still live in those towns, there is a steady flow of migration to more urban areas, where they face marginalization and poverty.

Responde's executive director, geographer Marcela Benítez, explained to Tierramérica that 60 percent of the towns affected are located on the Argentina Pampa, in the country's east-central region, which, paradoxically, is the richest agricultural zone. This year 90 million tons of grain will be harvested there.

But high-tech farming requires little manual labor.

Jorge Rulli, head of the non-governmental Rural Reflection Group, says the main cause of rural depopulation is soybean cultivation.

The small towns "are drowning" because of soy, he told Tierramérica. "There are no longer any small farmers, small farms or green belts around the towns. There are a lot of people who are gone because of this."

He explained that soy needs only one post for every 500 hectares. "In big towns the prosperity remains in the center, but in its periphery they live in extreme poverty," he said.

Responde's Benítez believes that soy farms, which occupy 16 million of the 30 million cultivated hectares in Argentina, play a role in the depopulation process, but are not the main cause.

The phenomenon is related to the closing of train stations, the lack of public investment, and the absence of alternative job sources, she said.

In her opinion, the rural populations are now "like forgotten blots, without connection to opportunities."

"The ones responsible are the governments, who cut off the trains and didn't plan for alternative modes of transportation. Nor did they provide education or training," said the expert.

Benítez sounded the alarm about the extinction of Argentine towns in the 1990s, when, she noted, the number of towns facing the process of depopulation was 403.

That inspired the foundation of Responde in 1999, a group with a variety of development programs aimed at reversing the phenomenon. However, achieving that goal has proved difficult, as evidenced by the fact that the number of disappearing towns continues to rise.

Godoy, a town in Santa Fe province, is one of the clearest examples of the scope of the problem.

"This town was founded 120 years ago, and 40 years ago we were 5,000" but now there are just 1,500 remaining, the town's top official, Nora Mendoza, told Tierramérica.

"The town used to have its passenger train station -- now it's only cargo. It had shops, mechanics, and foundries," said Mendoza. The countryside was "totally inhabited", and now "it's a sea of green. There is soy everywhere, but everything is done by machines," she said.

In order to survive, the townspeople sought alternatives, and Responde contributed by helping with a tourism project centered on the Oratorio Morante, where there is a church dating to 1770 with Jesuit images, a cemetery and an old ranch school.

Similar initiatives are taking root in other towns in other provinces, but resources are always scarce.

In 2003 the government stepped in with two new programs: "Mi Pueblo" (My Town), of the Ministry of Interior, and "Volver" (Return), of the Buenos Aires provincial government.

The first focuses on improving infrastructure, while the second aims at repopulation -- if possible, with the same people who left -- and provide financial and technical support for relaunching economic activities that were interrupted, or to start new ones.

"Volver" is under way in eight towns in the district, with an investment of one million dollars. There are families in the periphery of Buenos Aires who, under this plan, moved to Pardo, a town that once had a population of 2,400, and today just 240.

Responde believes these programs should not be limited to financing, but should also provide follow-up to ensure their sustainability.

Benítez said that while the group doesn't always work closely with the government, it has helped townspeople to present projects that qualified for the "Volver" plan on several occasions.

In any case, "investing in local development is cheaper than subsidizing with handouts to people who emigrate to the city periphery where they are condemned to marginalization," Benítez said.

* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.

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