Argentine resistance hinders Milei’s forest and glacier destruction

Ultra free-market president Javier Milei has not so far been able to get cuts to environmental regulations through Congress

Argentine Congress hinders Milei’s environmental cuts


Argentina’s new free-market president Javier Milei is pushing for a rollback in environmental regulation, endangering forests and glaciers.

Milei, who has called climate change a “socialist lie”, has tried to ease restrictions on mining near glaciers and remove protections for forests.

But the moves have sparked protests, petitions and open letters. Milei has been forced to withdraw the wider free market reform bill that they are contained in, as it became clear he lacked the votes in Argentina’s lower house to pass it in its entirety.

Although he was elected president in November with 56% of the vote, Milei’s party holds less than a fifth of the seats in the lower house and less than a tenth in the Senate, making passing legislation a big challenge and reliant on a large block of independents.

Milei has yet to outline the next step for the reform bill. The government could choose to resubmit the law for another vote in parliament, incorporate aspects of it into an executive degree or put it to a referendum of the people.

Red tape cuts

After decades of mainly left-wing rule, Milei was elected on a promise to drastically cut government spending, tackle rampant inflation and boost economic growth.

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Lucas Ruiz, a glaciologist at Argentine government scientific agency Conicet told Climate Home that Milei’s environmental agenda was “about relaxing regulations or reducing the area under protection with the argument that they go against economic development”.

Enrique Viale, who heads the Argentine association of environmental lawyers said that Milei “is part of an international trend that views environmentalism as an enemy”. Milei has praised former far-right presidents Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the USA.

Although he committed Argentina to staying in the Paris climate agreement and keeping its net zero by 2050 target, Milei quickly abolished the environment ministry and proposed a huge and radical reform bill.

The bill contains hundreds of items pushing his agenda in a broad range of industries, from tourism and wine to mining and farming. But the two items which most angered environmentalists were easing restrictions on economic activities in glacial areas and forests.

While some items in the bill received support from legislators, these two were more controversial after scientists and environmental associations widely rejected them.

Forests and glaciers

One item would allow provincial governments to authorise deforestation in areas where it is currently banned. It would also cut the budget for tackling illegal deforestation and forest fires.

Greenpeace estimates that, with this change, about four-fifths of the country’s forests would have been left without any legal protection.

Greenpeace forest campaigner Hernán Giardini called it a “serious setback in terms of environmental regression”, which would lead to an “uncontrolled increase” in forest destruction.

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Milei also proposed to change the legal definition of glaciers so that smaller glaciers, and those not previously accounted for in an offical log, aren’t counted. This means they would not be legally protected from the gold, silver and copper miners that have been eyeing up deposits in the Andes.

Giardini said the idea that you could mine on the fringes of glaciers without damaging the glaciers themselves as like “removing the door from the refrigerator and expecting the freezer not to defrost”.

The Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park (Photos: Amanderson2)

Argentina has almost 17,000 glaciers, spanning an area bigger than Palestine. They provide drinking water to cities and help Argentina adapt to climate change.

Glaciologist Ruiz said they help mitigate the effects of drought by providing water. “The greatest risk we now face [with mining] is contamination of the very areas where many rivers originate”.

The fate of these measures and the reform bill is uncertain. But Giardini warns that their passing would be “a shameful setback”.

The laws the reforms would water down “took many years of work”, he said, and wrecking them “would mean throwing away many years worth of effort”.

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