Micro-Regions in the Province of Catamarca

Juan Negri, Universidad Nacional de San Martín

Relevance of the Practice

The Argentine Constitution guarantees the autonomy of local (‘municipal’) governments. In addition, it states that ‘the provinces may create regions for economic and social development and establish bodies with powers to fulfill their purposes and may also enter into international agreements’ (Articles 123 and 124). However, local governments have not become relevant actors within the political landscape. They function within the framework of national and provincial (state laws), which have financial attributes that local governments do not.

The institutional framework for local cooperation is virtually non-existent. With three exceptions (over 23), provincial constitutions do not mention anything about inter-municipal cooperation nor the creation of organisms. Some provincial constitutions do mention cooperation in specific areas such as energy production or public works.[1]

Hence, experiences of local cooperation are not common in Argentina. This happens despite the fact that experts and academics have presented inter-municipal cooperation as a relevant tool for strengthening local governments.[2] Authors highlight the potential of inter-municipal cooperation to overcome diseconomies of scale in the provision of services or in the performance of public works, favor and undertake joint actions for the development of regions, increase the capacity to negotiate with other government jurisdictions and with contractors, suppliers, companies that provide services at the provincial or national level.

The main challenge that local agglomeration face in Argentina is the lack of trained personnel and technical teams to implement a better government management. This difficulty is exacerbated in medium-sized cities, which incorporate new functions and competences at a rapid pace. On very few occasions these cities can accompany this process with training of their personnel. Most local governments work based on ‘demand’ and do not have the capacity to establish their priorities in the medium and long term.[3] The low level of tax collection at the local level also results in budgetary difficulties. 

On top of these challenges, local governments have expanded their competences. Traditional local government tasks include planning; manage personnel, urban development and planning. A new set of ‘new competencies’ emerged in recent years. These include a new role of local governments as agents of economic promotion, which comprises the design and implementation of strategies for local development. The latter need requires to generate territorial environments capable to attract, retain and encourage investment and employment; as well as the identification, expansion and endorsement of nuclei of sectoral strength to promote geographic clusters.

This situation is then problematic. Local government cooperation has not increased, even when these units have expanded their competencies and face new challenges.

This said, in the last twenty years, experiences in local government cooperation increased, albeit in a ‘non-institutional’ fashion but through geographically based cooperation. In this case, municipalities have joined their neighbors in order to address common challenges faced by a defined geographical area. This strengthens cooperation and increases economies of scale, contributing to the achievement of economic, social and territorial cohesion, to increase negotiation capacity with third parties, and to carry out shared public works. By this token, inter-municipal cooperation attempts such as the Catamarca micro-region program have appeared. 

Description of the Practice

One particular example of institutional based attempt at fostering inter-municipal cooperation took place in the Province of Catamarca, in the Argentine northwest. The provincial authorities introduced ‘micro-regions’. The process of defining the latter was a political decision of the provincial government, and it was implemented ‘top-down’: the decision to group regions did not come from society but from provincial authorities, which demarcated territorial units with similar population characteristics, each with of less than 10,000 km2 in extension.

The objective was to achieve a ‘sustainable development’ through economic and productive growth. The provincial government considered that the provincial capital concentrated almost all productive, social, and cultural activities in the province, and therefore a more careful planning had to be applied.

The more specific objectives were to:

  • develop territorial and cultural identity and a sense of belonging, stimulating culture and revaluing heritage in all its forms;
  • strengthen human and social capital by enhancing the capacities of society to promote its own development;
  • promote balanced and integrated economic development with active policies to promote activities that create employment;
  • guarantee the sustainable and adequate management of the environment;
  • make essential goods and services more accessible for the population.

The specific actions carried out included, firstly, strengthening of the provision of infrastructure and equipment in the intermediate urban nodes (mid-size cities such as Santa María, Belén, Tinogasta, Andalgalá, Villa Antofagasta, Recreo and Los Altos that served as ‘capitals’ of the micro-regions). This aimed at guaranteeing essential services to the community and to ensure a more equitable and balanced inclusion of people and places. A second action was to improve internal connectivity by prioritizing three existing route corridors (National Route 157 Corridor, National Route 38 Corridor and National Route 40 Corridor) and creating three new corridors (East-Paso San Francisco transversal corridor, Andean interconnection corridor and the Paso de San Francisco corridor). This optimized the link between the provincial capital and the internal regional networks and achieved a more fluid articulation of internal activities. The Catamarcan micro-region program thirdly aimed at reinforcing the geopolitical positioning of the province at the regional level.

Further actions undertaken within the program included to:

  • stimulate the self-determination capacities of regional areas through devolution of specific administrative capacities and the creation of Centros de decision (decision centers, CDD);
  • recover and revalue the elements of the cultural landscape to highlight the value of the archaeological and architectural heritage; through the creation of touristic hubs;
  • generate economic policies that improve opportunities for regional development through the consolidation of a network of production and consumption centers;
  • increase investment in digital connectivity.

Assessment of the Practice

The project had ambitious objectives and was unable to fulfil its expectations. The project started in 2004, and an evaluation of the project[4] in 2011 suggested the following conclusions:

  • the micro-regions could not diminish the influence of the Greater Catamarca region;
  • the process generated economic growth in the regions, but there was no significant improvement of living conditions; 
  • the provincial government progressively lost interest in the project, which resulted in fragmented policies;
  • partisan differences blocked some progress, which was not uniform throughout the province;
  • some of the CDDs actually served as ambassadors of the provincial government, which was not the original intention.

The experience with inter-municipal cooperation is limited in Argentina. Some basic experiences encountered obstacles to pursue their objectives. Some of these obstacles reside in the scant institutional setting that does not include the possibility of local integration. The small size of the majority of Argentine local governments constitutes an institutional weakness that hampers their ability to provide more and better services. The minimum legislated population to constitute a municipality needs to be revised. Institutional designs and legal frameworks also need to be improved. Reforms must tend, on the one hand, to avoid the constitution of new municipalities of unviable size (some very small municipalities were created recently by provincial governments out of demands of local population of ‘autonomy’ from a larger urban center). On the other hand, the reforms should promote and facilitate the formation of inter-municipal institutions, with broad and growing functions. The diversity of strengths among local governments should be the object of particular concern for public authorities. Unfortunately, there is no discussion at the national level of these issues.

The primary challenge is undoubtedly for the provincial authorities. The role of the National State is more limited but not less important. Although it would only have the right to intervene if municipal autonomy is not assured, the federal government should not give up its guiding role, nor lose the opportunity to influence the establishment of equitable conditions of development for the inhabitants of the different Argentine municipalities.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Cafiero A, ‘La cooperación descentralizada en Argentina’ (Observatorio de cooperación descentralizada 2009) <http://biblioteca.municipios.unq.edu.ar/modules/mislibros/archivos/libreria-201.pdf >

Coria L, ‘El rol de las autoridades locales para el desarrollo sostenible: La experiencia de los municipios de la microrregión Andalgalá’ (2007) 1 DELOS: Desarrollo Local Sostenible Una revista académica <http://www.eumed.net/rev/delos/00/>

Interview with Lorena Coria, Doctoral Student, Universidad Nacional de Luján (Buenos Aires, June 2021)

Iturburu M, ‘Municipios argentinos. Potestades y Restricciones constitucionales para un nuevo modelo de gestión local’ (Instituto nacional de la administración pública 2001)

[1] Iturburu M, ‘Municipios argentinos. Potestades y Restricciones constitucionales para un nuevo modelo de gestión local’ (Instituto nacional de la administración pública 2001).

[2] Lorena Coria, ‘El rol de las autoridades locales para el desarrollo sostenible: La experiencia de los municipios de la microrregión Andalgalá’ (2007) 1 DELOS: Desarrollo Local Sostenible Una revista académica    <http://www.eumed.net/rev/delos/00/>.

[3] Ana Cafiero, ‘La cooperación descentralizada en Argentina’ (Observatorio de cooperación descentralizada 2009); http://biblioteca.municipios.unq.edu.ar/modules/mislibros/archivos/libreria-201.pdf

[4] Interview with Lorena Coria, Doctoral Student, Universidad Nacional de Luján (Buenos Aires, June 2021).