Buenos Aires Herald-Article 98-la Forestal

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Article by Andrew Graham-Yooll. Published in Buenos Aires Herald, Sept 1998

The British in Argentina: End of Empire, la Forestal

The British Empire came to an end in the north of Santa Fe, on a vast triangle of land of depleted forest. You can argue that Harold Macmillans “winds of change” brought the Empire to an end in Ghana in 1957 or Guyana in 1966. But the atmosphere of completion of a cycle, the impression of a full stop to history is to be found in what was once known as the cuňa boscosa (the woodland wedge) in the northern reaches of Santa fe and the southern part of Chaco province.That was the the domain of the Forestal Land, Timber and Railways Company, which came to epitomise British colonial influence in a country that was not a colony. The British-owned railways were the symbol of investment and the English presence, but they were run as a law-abiding commercial enterprise in the full glare of international publicity.The Forestal was that too, but it was a symbol of an older empire. The company ruled over that land for half a century. The valuable, non renewable resource was the red quebracho hardwood from which tanine was extracted for processing leather. And while tanine could be produced and the world could stay at war, and while the leather for the boots of the armies marching across Europe was needed, tanine was in demand and valuable. Then the supply began to run out, war ended. In any case, synthetic substitutes for Canine had been found.

Between 1954 and 1963 “La Forestal” wound down its operation in Argentina and moved to exploit the mimosa tree in Southwest Africa.The towns left behind by this huge, prosperous industry became ghostly, and the people who had once worked there seemed to go to sleep. There was nothing more to do, no wood, no industry, no work.

“La Forestal” has an official company history, and a nationalistic history. Now, in the light of changing capitalism and corporate pursuits and globalization, there is also the let’s-look-back-and see-what-really-happened history.

The official history was told by Agnes Hicks, in The Story of the Forestal, published by the company in London in 1956. It is largely a benign view of an imperial venture.

Argentine nationalists pay tribute to Gastόn Gori, whose La Forestal: La tragedia del guebracho Colorado (Platina/Stilcograf) was published in 1965. This portrays the company as a colonial exploiter, which squeezed the contracted haclleros (wood cutters) to pay little and cream off the greatest profit. And when the cutters struck in 1921, they were gunned down like pigeons by a mixture of a private army and a tame local police and army.

Detractors of Juan Domingo Peron said that as a young lieutenant he was part of the repressive troops, but this may or may not be. Peron remains ubiquitous in fantasy and defamation.

La Forestal had its origins in the Argentine Quebracho Company, formed in 1904, by the Harteneck family who had been cutting quebrachosince 1902 – and by the New York Tanning Extract Company. La Forestal itself was created in Paris, incorporating British and German shareholders. In 1906 The Forestal Land, Timber and Railways Company Limited was registered. The board, in 1910, included C.E.Gunther, a director at the Anglo-South-‘ American Bank and president of Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company; H. Edlmann, a director of the British and Foreign Marine Insurance Company; Baron Emile d’Erlanger, Alberto Harteneck, H.M. Kersey,
Federico Portalis, and H.Renner, managing director of his own German-based company. Thus, La Forestal was born as a multi-naltional company, well before such corporations became the fashion in international business.

La Forestal began to close in 1953, and finally packed up in 1963, having exhausted the non-renewable resource it had exploited in northern Argentina. It sold its properties for pennies. Ten thousand hectares of bare land, depleted of hard wood were transferred to a cooperative. Small properties were not even sold. Families squatted on them. After the exodus, there were 1,300 properties in Villa Guillermina, 924 of them without title deeds. “Even the municipality building was La Forestal property up to 1990. Property deeds had to be drawn up to build the telephone office,” Mayor Miguel Arizaga said.

A baker on the main square in Villa Guillermina said that, “The town just went to sleep. Nobody did anything. I remember that the first sign of life to be noticed was in 1976, when one of my neighbours changed part of the front of his house. La Forestal spoiled people. It gave them houses, and work, and there were repairmen for everything. People did their jobs, and nothing else. There was no incentive to be-independent because it was too comfortable to let La Forestal do everything:”

The ancient guesthouse at Tartagal belongs to a family named Gutierrez, and some of the building’s details look untouched in decades. The archway to the kitchen and the maitre’s counter in the dining room look like a scene from the Titanic, preserved in the depths of time.

The tanine factory in Villa Ana would fascinate industrial archeologists. A huge empty brick building, roofless but partly used as a cultural centre, stands as a symbol of the might of La Forestal and the value and power of tanine. It was the equivalent of oil, a kind of “black gold” of its day. In Villa Guillermina the chimney of the former tanine factory – once the tallest in South America – stands in cracked silence as a symbol of a better past. Around it there are mounds of sawdust from the new chipboard factory built on the same site.Around the main square of Villa Guillermina you can read in the buildings the origins of the town. The first houses were built by Germans and Swiss, and students of architecture go to photograph the brick lines.Next to these, and further afield, are the red corrugated tin roofs typical of British colonial architecture. The British administration lasted longer.

But just as in Corrientes there was a time not long ago when the old people remembered “the days of the Baron” (Liebig) when everybody had better wages, and social services, etc., there are people in Villa Guillermina, Tartagal and Villa Ana, etc. – the towns built strictly for the quebracho industry in a property ranging over several hundred thousand hectares who talk of the “days of La Forestal.”

The mayor of Villa Guillermina, Miguel Arizaga, was born in the town in 1948, “when the exodus was just starting:’ Arizaga does not share much of the criticism of the British. “They saw a good business and they went for it. When the British left, the towns around here went to sleep.

“We are looking to see how the region, nine municipalities not just Guillermina, can have a policy for recovery rather than decline.”

The town got a new lease of life in 1977, when Fetrum installed its chipboard and wood panel factory.

“But even when the factory came we did nothing,” says Mayor Arizaga (whose formal title is “president of the commune”). “The factory uses wood. But to date we have not planted any trees to replace what is cut down. Now the factory is trucking in pine wood from Ituzaingo, in Misiones, 400 kilometres away. We rip out the natural forest for cattle grazing, but nobody replaces the forest.”

Arizaga attributes the structural poverty to indifference. There are 250 unemployed in the town of 4,500. “If we had planted 250 hectares of eucalyptus a few years ago there would not be any unemployed. If people had planted 40 years ago when La Forestal left, we would not face any threat. We can blame the ingleses for doing what they did. Fine. But what have we done to reverse the situation? Nothing.”

The Ferrum factory employs about 200 people in the field, and another hundred in the plant. Those 300 wages, plus 200 people in government jobs, plus a small group of shopkeepers, plus pensions and teachers’ wages, keep the town of 4,500 people just above poverty. The only paved road in town is the one leading to the factory gates, as in the days of La Forestal- The rest are earth and, in the recent heavy rains, become unusable mud pits.

Something is stirring.

Ernesto Feck, 43, five children, descended of a Swiss father and a German grandfather, is the secretary of the Quebracho Foundation, an institution founded four years ago in Buenos Aires by a group of peoplewho had left Villa Guillermina to find fortunes elsewhere. The foundation’s president is businessman Emilio Garibotti.

Feck regretted that, “For years the secondary school only trained young people to emigrate. For fifty years people have been educated to leave.” The foundation holds three properties once owned by La Forestal. The old bachelors’ quarters, the guest house and a former administration building. In adjoining land Fundacion Quebracho wants to develop silkworm.

Mulberry trees have to be planted, for the project to have a future. The area allows “harvesting” of silk seven times a year. Italy, which leads world production, has two or maybe three harvests a year.

We have a privileged climate,” says Feck of the sweltering weather. “There is a domestic market in Argentina, but we do not have enough production.
This is a pilot project. Brazil started when we did, a few years ago, and is way ahead of us. We failed due to our own incompetence and indifference.”
The IRSA/Cresud group, part of George Soros’s properties, donated the money to help start the foundation, when Cresud bought 100,000 hectares of former Forestal land. Feck runs a soda syphon and bottled water factory to finance the foundation and give himself a wage.

Does Villa Guillermina have a future? “We have to make a future. We are faced with becoming a ghost town again, if we do not provide for the future. We have to stop blaming La Forestal and the ingleses for our problems. We have to see that the infrastructure they left was good, that we had it in ourselves to reverse the decline.”