How the secrets of Argentina’s wealthiest landowners were exposed

Months of research led to the compilation of this list of the 20 largest landowners in Argentina. Its stated goal is to set the stage for the continuing discussion of land ownership and the government’s effort to remove regulations limiting foreign ownership.

Disputes have flared up again in Argentina following President Javier Milei’s recent effort to overturn existing laws and eliminate the 15% limit on foreign ownership of land. Within that context, Perfil has compiled a list of the top 20 landowners in the country, each of whom owns more than 100,000 hectares of property.

At the top of the list is the oil company High Luck Group, which has been leased 1.14 million hectares and is funded by Chinese cash. The adjacent 920,000 hectares are owned by the Italian Benetton Group’s Compañía de Tierras del Sud.

This long list finally ends with the little over 105,000 hectares held by the corporation Corporación América, controlled by millionaire Eduardo Eurnekián. It touches on fields of the rich pampas, expansive national landscapes, huge mining regions, and much more besides.

Compiling the inventory

On September 7, 2022, around nine in the morning, this journalist was making their way to San Isidro. Trains going to Retiro were extremely crowded, whereas those going in the other direction were rather empty. Sitting down to digest last week’s worth of data was a breeze because this newspaper was about to have a conversation with the owner of 170,000 hectares of national land—an area roughly 8.5 times bigger than Buenos Aires City—in just a few minutes.

The fields of Sergio Rostagno, a lawyer based in the province of Mendoza, and the northern suburbs of this city make up his time apart. Finding him was a breeze; as a famous figure in the Malargüe zone, getting in touch with him was a breeze as well. Even though they may identify as accountants, small or medium-sized businessmen, or news vendors, these individuals ultimately control land.

Among the landowners listed by Perfil is Rostagno, who is the proud owner of El Palauco, a field spanning 170,000 hectares. The purpose of that gathering was to double-check data that had been collected regarding that parcel of property, particularly the hectare count. Information indicating at least 150,000 hectares have surfaced from news outlets, films, and the real estate industry.

Right from the bat, Rostagno made a wishful thinking reference to that plot of property when he started talking about it: “I’d like to swap that Mendoza field for 1,000 hectares in La Pampa because everything there is more ordered.”

He was asked to give into further detail by this newspaper. Indigenous peoples’ claims to ancestral land, which are largely concentrated along the Andes, are a recurrent theme in the land discussion, and his response brings this issue to the forefront. Online news articles detail a string of disputes characterized by accusations of unlawful occupations and the subsequent forced displacements.

The focus of Rostagno’s analysis was on “pseudo-indigenous peoples.”

The dispute began in 2004 when, according to eyewitnesses, a number of new vehicles began circling the fields, encouraging renters to pretend to be indigenous and refuse to pay rent. Even though there were continuing rental contracts, many continued to do so after that. The attorney informed Perfil that despite a [positive] court verdict, the ruling could not be applied against indigenous communities.

The geographical challenges in determining the boundaries of fields of such size that cross numerous provincial and national highways is another answer that may be added to that one; it recurs in subsequent interviews with managers or owners of landholdings along the Andes.

Rostagno’s response brought up an additional uncertainty. Among the cases examined, El Palauco stood out as being unaffiliated with any farming or mining companies. The history and use of the land in the Andes foothills, which are ripe with rivers and creeks, were unknown. But its proprietor did not mince words when he explained that they were underutilized. The zone’s peasants often lease large tracts of land to raise livestock or run small farms.

The legal difficulties of redistributing the fractions belonging to Rostagno and the two other partners that founded El Palauco SA dictated that El Palauco remain an undivided condominium, according to Rostagno. He explained that the land’s history began in 1912, when it was bought by the great-grandfather of one of his former business partners at a state auction.

Throughout their chat, Rostagno was unwavering in his confirmation of the specific figure that Perfil had sought.

“More or less 170,000 hectares,” he declared. Additionally, he brought out an unanticipated detail: in 2009, 103 hectares were granted to a European Space Agency base, where a massive parabolic antenna was constructed for data transmission, exploratory missions, and scientific investigations.

Case selection

Among the many encounters with actual owners, real estate firms, federal and provincial government departments, and corporate officials that included meetings with Rostagno, there were dozens more.

The inquiry commenced in September of last year. After the seed was planted, the task was to verify the primary data, namely the hectare count, while collecting pertinent basic information about the landowners, the land’s uses, and its geographical location, noting the unique aspects of each case. Ownership or temporary leasing of more than 100,000 hectares by both domestic and international entrepreneurs was a criterion for selection.

The strategic land law, which had been approved in 2011 and had attempted to limit foreign ownership of land to 15% of Argentina’s total surface (with the same cap applied at provincial and departmental level while working in equivalencies in terms of the land’s productivity), was repealed by Javier Milei, a deputy who was still a long way from becoming president or signing any massive deregulatory emergency decree. A hectare of land in Santa Cruz and the fertile pampas are not the same thing; the legislation recognized this fact while setting restrictions.

The law went on to establish the National Register of Rural Land, which was given the responsibility of managing the foreign ownership quotas. Our team’s initial effort to determine who owned fields larger than 100,000 hectares was to create a request for access to public information; however, this tool was never implemented. Although our request was made in an off-the-record manner, the relevant office quickly informed us through informal channels that access to the requested information would be denied due to its nature as reserved data. Requests for access to public information filed to various provincial agencies in Mendoza, San Juan, La Pampa, and other provinces all received the identical response.

Generally speaking, it was easier with land in the hands of private firms, but when this newspaper realized that nothing was being done at the official level, we had to resort to artisan tactics with a case-by-case search. They confirm this information in management and sustainability reports sent to the state or investors, and the majority of them disclose it on their websites alongside location and use facts.

However, similar to El Palauco, some corporations that seemed to be “ghost” entities showed up on the list without any information about their possible owners or online presence, and they were hardly referenced in press archives.

Several sources cited Estomonte AG as the owner of 400,000 ha in the Cuyo midwest. The precise amount required months of checking paperwork, calling, and emailing with no response. Within the mountain of legal paperwork filed in the federal courthouse in San Juan, the solution materialized as a parcel of land with a total area of 404,098 hectares. It seems like the corporation is a Swiss offshore that sued another company a few years ago for selling off land without first settling a border dispute. The other company owned a nearby field. Since the field is situated in Calingasta, San Juan Provinces, the issue of land delineation around the Andes resurfaces again.

This process was carried out individually for each of the dozens of fields that did not make it onto the final printed list, regardless of whether it was because the information regarding their hectares could not be verified or because the fields were divided and sold. Lázaro Báez is a prime example; he was one of a small number of landowners whose properties were either auctioned off or given to federal judges as a result of lawsuits filed against them.

That is why we compiled a list of the 20 largest landowners; this data has the potential to be an invaluable resource for illuminating the motivations driving the perennial land dispute.

1 thought on “How the secrets of Argentina’s wealthiest landowners were exposed”

  1. The article is misleading.
    Many of this large tracks of land are in areas where land value is extremely low, near desert land, high Andes mountains, leased land for oil exploration and potential exploration, etc.
    Same as in most large countries with similar land conditions like Australia, the US, Canada, Peru, etc.


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