The Devil is in the details

November 21, 2008

Numbers, or rather the lack of them, are the latest gripe of Argentina’s disgruntled farm sector.

Statistics published by the government for years have been disappearing since the Agriculture Secretariat ceded control of the country’s multibillion-dollar grains and beef trade to another state agency, the ONCCA, earlier this year.

Little by little, the government has stopped updating routine tables detailing weekly grains export commitments and purchases by soy crushers. Weekly corn and wheat sales, with details of buyer countries, have not been published since June.

Some new information has been posted in its place, but it smells like a conspiracy to grains exporters, meatpackers and farmers, whose relationship with the center-left government of President Cristina Fernandez seems irreparably damaged following this year’s messy conflict over soy taxes.

“The ONCCA is trying to hide its errors by withholding information … Distorting, restricting or delaying publication is a grave shortcoming that conspires against the country’s development,” meatpackers’ chamber CICCRA said in an unusually strong-worded statement this week.

Such criticism has been swiftly rebutted by ONCCA chief Ricardo Etchegaray, a former head of customs described as a long-time ally of the president and her powerful husband, ex-President Nestor Kirchner.

“Since we started work in this office, we’ve been dedicated to bringing greater transparency to the agriculture trade,” the agency said in a statement earlier this month.

The ONCCA does publish some grains export information, and has added new details related to safeguarding domestic supplies, but critics say new systems mean the data cannot be compared to past statistics and key details have been lost.

It is not the only government agency to alter or cut back on the information it publishes.A spokeswoman for the ONCCA said technical problems this week had hampered plans to post some of the missing numbers on the agency’s website.

The longer it takes, the more the industry will complain that numbers are being used as a political weapon.

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