After a marathon and at times heated debate, the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday approved a new law banning the repurposing of fire-affected land, to cheers from environmentalists in the public gallery.
The bill aims to address fires which have been started deliberately, and which conservationists suspect are an underhand means of clearing land for development. The new legislation would impose a 30-year ban ban on any development of fire-affected agricultural land, with 60 years for protected areas, native forests, and wetlands. It now passes to the Senate.
An estimated one million hectares (10,000 square kilometres) of land have been devastated by fires across the nation so far this year.
One of Argentina’s worst affected regions has been the wetlands along the 320km delta of the Paraná River, which spans the provinces of Santa Fe, Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires, where an estimated 300,000 hectares have been damaged.
The amendment to Fire Management (“Manejo del Fuego”) Law 26.815 passed Wednesday establishes that: “no change of use is permitted in these zones for housing development or any type of agriculture which is different to that for which it was used habitually at the time of the fire.” It adds that there can be no change of use, thereby guaranteeing “conditions for the restoration of the fire-affected area.”
In a session which began at midday on Tuesday and ended at 8.20am on Wednesday, the bill was eventually passed by 132 votes to 96, with the decisive votes in favour from Frente de Todos and their allies Federal and Unidad Federal para el Desarrollo and the Left. Juntos por el Cambio, the Movimiento Popular Neuquino and the Partido Social all voted in opposition. There were four abstentions, most notably two PRO deputies, Sebastián García de Luca and Gabriel Frizza.
Ironically, the new law’s sponsor Máximo Kirchner, president of the ruling Frente de Todos bloc, missed the session as he was in isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.
Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa was forced to call for order as tempers boiled over towards the end of the 20-hour session, with government backbencher Leonardo Grosso yelling: “Fire will no longer be a business,” declaring that it was “incompatible to be an environmentalist and neo-liberal, to be a member of Cambiemos and a protector of the environment.”
He alleged that opponents of the proposal were “defending other interests they don’t want to admit to: defending business, defending agricultural interests.”
Frente de Todos lawmaker Daniela Vilar said: “We need new legislation which takes into account factors like property speculation. We’re living through a complex time in the country in which those with great power are generating more destruction while those who are less developed are in a much more vulnerable position.”
From the opposition benches, Coalición Cívica caucus chief Maximiliano Ferraro slammed the proposal, saying it “doesn’t offer better protection to the environment.”
He continued: “The project is a mess, putting everything into the same basket, there is no distinguishing between accidental and intentional fires. It’s making law on the ashes, after the event, and points the finger of blame.
“It doesn’t allow us to contribute to the prevention of fires, nor improve the system of early warnings, nor give the security forces and firefighters the equipment they need to respond quickly.
“It points the finger of blame, criminalising landowners without requiring any proof.”
Córdoba Radical Brenda Austin, also part of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, claimed that the bill was a distraction from the underfunding of firefighters, alleging that “while nearly a million hectares have been burnt, [Frente de Todos] have cut the budget for fire management; from 30 planes operating, we have been reduced to six.”
“They [Frente de Todos] have got a speech for everybody, but this is a regressive law in environmental terms. This law isn’t about protecting the forests, but taking away protection in perpetuity that was already provided by existing laws.”
Although he voted in favour, Austin’s provincial Peronist counterpart, Carlos Gutiérrez, hinted that more was needed to tackle the problem, saying that his province already “had a more wide-ranging law than this project is creating.”
Austin and Gutierrez’s province has been the worst affected in the whole country, with an estimated 315,994 hectares burnt up to October 15 this year alone.