The protests started when the government modified the export tax regime on March 11th. To understand their causes, it is useful to look at the recent history of the application of a tax to
(To have an idea of the problem this policy was trying to address, imagine -if you can- today's food price inflation, raising the concerns of international organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and various Central Banks in both developed and developing countries, and multiply it by a three digit factor.)
The system had remained in place since then, with export taxes occasionally increasing. The second justification for this policy, even after the economic recovery, was not very different from the first one. The stable and competitive exchange rate policy implemented in
By the end of 2007, a third reason for the tax arose as increases in international food prices accelerated, fuelled by Asian giants’ economic growth, substitution of certain crops to produce fashionable biofuels, and even by speculation. The recent change to the export tax regime intends to address this new phenomenon, linking domestic prices to developments in international markets. (See ‘Mad, bad taxes on food’, The Economist, March 29th-April 4th, 2008)
This time, however, the change in export taxes is different from previous increases, for it establishes a scheme of moving export taxes. In the new regime, export taxes are not fixed but follow changes in international primary commodity prices, increasing when international prices rise and decreasing if international prices fall. In the current scenario of booming international prices, where the price of certain crops has almost (or more than) doubled in less than six months, modifications to the export tax system and the design of alternative policies (involving not only export taxes but also long-term policies for small agricultural producers and particular products, as well as countercyclical macroeconomic policies) were certainly necessary.
Protests started after the government announced the first type of policies (the change to the tax system). They emerged as a response to the lack of long-term policies for the agricultural sector, but also because, in a context of high international prices and expectations of further increases, flexible export taxes imply lower (extraordinary) benefits for the most profitable sector in the Argentine economy. The large amounts of present and future income at stake, taken for granted by some producers as a fair reward to their productive efficiency, thus represent the fundamental important reason behind the recent protests – which are likely to continue.
The dispute over extraordinary benefits, however, in no way justifies three weeks' of lock-out and piquetes affecting the entire Argentine population and especially its most deprived section. While it is fair to say that these benefits are in part a consequence of technical change and of the extension of the land frontier, they are also linked to a particular exchange rate regime and international context.
The conflict is still unresolved and open, and is transforming the distribution of ‘abundance’ as one of the fundamental political economy disputes of the 21st century.
NoteLeandro Serino is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where he also completed a Masters in Development Economics in 2003. In recent years, Serino devoted most of his time to his PhD research, which focuses on the question of structural change in countries with abundant natural resource endowments, like his own country Argentina. During his ‘free’ time, Serino participated in different projects in the fields of development economics and applied macroeconomics, at the University of General Sarmiento, the ISS, ECLAC Buenos Aires and the Ministry of Economy and Production of Argentina.