BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — President Cristina Fernandez urged Argentina's lawmakers Wednesday to quickly approve a 2,500-acre (1,000 hectare) limit on rural land ownership by foreigners.
She said the legislation she is sending to Congress won't affect properties already in foreign hands, because she doesn't want to change the rules of the game to harm those who bought land in good faith.
The bill also would create a single registry for rural properties so it's easier to know who owns what. Currently, each of Argentina's 23 provinces keeps its own registries, which aren't easily searchable.
Fernandez said the proposed law is based on strong legal limits on foreign land ownership in Brazil, Canada, United States and France.
Foreigners can generally own any amount of rural land in the United States, but purchase or sale of such property — of as little as 10 acres — by foreigners must be reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture within 90 days. Violations of the law can result in fines of up to 25 percent of the property's value.
In Argentina, foreigners own 11 percent of the country's 445 million acres (180 million hectares) of productive land, according to the Argentine Agricultural Federation, which has long pushed for limits. The proposed law would limit the total foreign ownership to 20 percent of the total productive land.
Fernandez stressed that if the proposed national registry shows that more than 20 percent of productive land is already in foreign hands, the law won't affect the owners' property rights "because we want to be a serious country."
Creating a unified property registry and limiting foreign ownership could provide Argentina's government with more tools to control industrial agriculture.
In the country's Patagonian desert, the ownership of vast sheep ranches by U.S. and European businessmen, including the family that owns the Benetton clothing line, has led to conflicts with indigenous populations.
In the fertile Pampas grasslands outside Buenos Aires, former ranches that provided inexpensive beef to Argentine households have been converted into huge soy plantations. Companies, many of them under foreign ownership, produced soy last year on more than 44 million acres (18 million hectares).
Foreign ownership of water resources has also been controversial. Douglas Tompkins, founder of the Esprit and North Face clothing lines, has stirred suspicion by using his fortune to preserve swaths of wilderness in Argentina and Chile, including land covering part of an important aquifer.
Fernandez credited agricultural commodities for fueling Argentina's economic recovery, with the gross domestic product growing by 79 percent since she and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner, began governing in 2003.
Her government, however, has also accused the nation's largest grain operators of hiding the full scope of their production to evade taxes, and she has battled constantly to ensure that the country's increasingly multinational agriculture industry provides enough food for domestic consumption at prices Argentines can afford.
"A serious country defends and cares for its national patrimony," Fernandez said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.