Argentina’s Forgotten People

Monica Romero remembers how back in 1964, her family and neighbours were evicted from their farms, and their homes burnt down by Patrón Costa, to make way for sugar plantations and a refinery. With no land, her family could no longer cultivate their sweet potatoes, squashes and sweet corn and their only option was to accept the labour offered by the new proprietors. Fifty families were housed in one shed and they were ‘paid’ for their toil with vouchers, valid only in the small local shop owned by the same company. Today their land is owned by the U.S. based Seabord Corporation.(1)  When Seabord bought the property in 1996 they fired 6000 workers, replacing human labour with new machinery. The now unemployed workers left the countryside for the villas misera in the city. Monica’s tale about her Estación El Tabacal Guaraní community is typical of many indigenous communities who live in the Salta region in the north of Argentina. Petrol companies, including British Petroleum and Tecpetrol, and agribusiness corporations such as Seabord, have bought land, destroyed the once abundant forests and nature for sugar and GM soya plantations and evicted indigenous inhabitants. On the 10th of September 2003 seventy members of Monica’s community decided to re-claim their land. Crushed by poverty in the city, it was time to salvage the earth where they rightfully belong. (2) 

Far south in Patagonia, the Mapuche face a similar plight. In 1997 Benetton bought Patagonian land from the British Compania Tierras del Sur Argentina S.A. for 50 million dollars. The Mapuche have lived in these territories for 13 000 years. Benetton now owns 900 000 hectares of Patagonia and is the largest landholder in Argentina. The multinational have since enclosed their ‘property’ with a fence. Now 85 year old Mapuche Doña Calendaria has to jump over the barrier every day to collect water from the region’s only stream. Benetton also demands that the local Mapuche community solicit permission from them to fish in the river. Furthermore, the corporation evicted a Mapuche family. Driven by economic hardship the Curiñanco family left their low paid work in the city of Esquel and peacefully re-occupied a small plot of land in front of the Benetton estate, in order to farm. The company maintain that the area is their property. The local authorities are also in the process of evicting eight Mapuche families, including Doña Calendaria, from the village of Leleque in order to create tourist attractions. The main part of the tourist attraction is a tour around the Benetton estate.  (3) Foreign billionaires such as George Soros and Sylvester Stallone have also bought vast areas of Patagonia for millions of dollars.  (4) Traditionally the Mapuche organize their social and political life in a decentralized and participatory way.  (5) They consider themselves part of nature, rather than possessors of the land.  (6)

The ‘Mapuche- Teheulche human rights group “11 de Octubre” uphold that, effectively, General Roca’s ‘Desert Campaign’ continues today. In 1878 General Roca directed his ethnic cleansing crusade, to rid Patagonia of Indians in his quest for ‘national sovereignty’. Under his orders thousands of indigenous inhabitants were assassinated and their land taken away. Soldiers were rewarded for each pair of testicles they brought back from the ‘Indian hunts’.  (7) The British offered 1 pound sterling for every Indian’s head given in.  (8) Children were taken away from their parents and forced to be adopted in Buenos Aires. The interbreeding has a striking resemblance to Australia’s stolen generation. General Roca personally seized 30 000 hectares of indigenous land.  (9)

Even further south at ‘the end of the earth’, what has now been named Tierra del Fuego, the Selk’nam peoples were not exempt from the slaughter. A few years after General Roca’s campaign a British ship landed in search of gold. A firing squad gunned down an entire Selk’nam community, “just in case they became aggressive through contact with the invaders.”  (10) The Selk’nam lived by a system of self-government in close-knit communities, hunting guanacos (a type of lama) and living with nature in their nomadic tradition.  (11) The last Selk’nam died in 1999. Virginia Choinquitel lived in deep poverty on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the last of her peoples who, since the first invaders arrived, were systematically massacred, poisoned and expropriated from their native soil.

Today there are only around 500 000 indigenous peoples left in Argentina, including Wichis, Tobas, Kollas, Teheulches, Diaguitas, Pilagas, Cholotes, Chulupis, Cirriguanos, Guarani, Mapuche and Mocovies .  (12) These groups have all been assigned the argentine nationality, regardless of the fact their ethnicities often cross nation state boundaries. The Mapuche music group from Chile; “Kimkache”, conducted their first ‘international’ tour to Argentina to play to their Mapuche brothers on the other side of the Andes.

In Argentina the “Day of the Race” is still celebrated every 12th of October. It was on this day when, over 500 years ago in 1492, Cristobel Colon landed on the shores of the Americas for the first time and proclaimed to bring race and civilization to the ‘New World’. This day signified the end of race and civilization for the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. In just 150 years they were nearly exterminated; from around 70 million when Colon arrived to barely 3 ½ million.  (13) From the time of the conquest to the present day, the indigenous have been, and continue to be, marginalised and persecuted by the economic doctrine which was introduced. With over half the population in Argentina now living below the poverty line, the indigenous are the exploited of the exploited. The expropriation of the indigenous from their land continues: Usually a Buenos Aires based firm representing a foreign corporation arranges the proceedings; they converse with the local politicians, the local politicians converse with the judge, the judge with the police, and the indigenous families are evicted.  (14) Their illegal maltreatment is ‘within’ the law and continues to be legitimised.

 The indigenous peoples’ human rights group; Cháguar, is outraged that children still learn about General Roca as a national hero in school. They have recently published a book called “We tell you about us” which is written by indigenous children from the Salta region in order to portray their reality to the rest of Argentina.   (15) In a country composed mainly of European immigrants, ‘indigenousness’ is all too often correlated with racial prejudices. European superiority and rationale persist in creating a divide between ‘Us’ – white, civilized and ‘Them’ – black, uncivilized. Hank Wangford exemplifies this in a piece published in the ‘liberal’ British Guardian newspaper, where he describes the people in the mountains near Salta as “chipmunks”, referring to their appearance when they chew coca leaves.  (16) In a recent Sunday supplement of the national paper Clarin, the indigenous inhabitants of Humahuaca near Salta are described as a “Forgotten Heritage…People who appear to have fallen from history… (here) live argentines who appear to come from a different century”.  (17) The indigenous are either romanticised and exoticised for tourism, entertainment and their artistic talents; heralded as quaint artefacts or a ‘living history’, more part of Indian, backwards Bolivia than white, progressive Argentina; or marginalised and exploited for economic gain.

The ideology and racism used to justify the exploitation of the native inhabitants of Latin America during the times of the Spanish colonialism continues today, perhaps more refined and perhaps slightly more discreet than in Colon’s time, but flourishingly effective and as cruel as ever. Deep within European philosophy lies the racism, which underlies the European world-view. Voltaire claimed that America was inhabited by lazy and stupid Indians. Bacon, De Maistre, Montesquieu, Hume, and Bodin asserted that Indians are degraded humans. Hegel highlighted their physical and spiritual incapacity.  (18) The psychology of progress, development and civilization persists. ‘Civilized’ Europe, now with the U.S.A., continues to justify the unjustifiable in the name of God, human rights and progress, and maintains a racist world-view which is so innate it is almost unconscious.

Today the multinationals continue the colonial mission. After Monica’s community reclaimed their land from the Seabord Corporation in September, they were violently evicted by armed police. The eviction was personally requested by Seabord, outraged that the Ava Guarani should occupy their ‘private property’. Seventy Ava Guarani were detained, including pregnant women, and finally released and charged with usurpation. As a final effort for justice, in December, 21 members of the community walked and hitchhiked the 1500 km from Salta to Buenos Aires to meet President Kirchner. On their return they re-occupied their land and were subsequently re-evicted. They are still struggling to salvage just 5000 hectares of their ancestral earth.  (19)

 1. Reclamo indígena. La Vaca Dignidad a Pie. 10 Diciembre 2003.
 2. E-mail Alerta Salta.
 3. Hacher, S & Bartolone, P. Mapuche Lands in Patagonia taken over by Benetton wool farms. 25 November 2003.
 4. Tierra de alguien. 30 Abril 2003. Guía del Mundo. Affiliated to Instituto del Tercer Mundo, Uruguay.
 5. Pueblo Mapuche. 20 Noviembre 2003.
 6. Los Mapuches. El pueblo que vuelve. 17 Noviembre 2003. Entrevista con Pablo Garcia.
 7. Galeano, E. Las Venas Abierta de América Latina. Catálogos. Argentina. 2001. p.74.
  8. Bayer, O. La Patagonia Rebelde. Planeta. Argentina. 2002. P.260
  9. Bayer, O. La República Cartonera. Pagina 12. 17 Enero 2004.
  10. Comunidad del Pueblo Selk’nam “Rafaela Ishton”. El Pueblo Selk’nam protagonizando su destino. 17 Julio 2000.
  11. Piana, E & Orquera, L. Onas o Selknan. Secrétaria del Turismo de Tierra del Fuego.
  12. Camps, S. En el país hay 500 000 indígenas. Clarín. 3 Junio 1999.
  13. Galeano, E. Las venas abiertas de América Latina. Catálogos. Argentina. 2001. p.59.
  14. Bayer, O. Republica Cartonera. Pagina 12. 17 Enero 2004.
  15. Abad, M.F. Narraciones de niños aborígenes salteños: Así somos, así sentimos. Revista Nexo. 23 November 2003. ( our translation “ Te contamos de nosotros”)
  16. Wangford, H. A Fistful of Pesos. The Guardian. 29 November 2003.
  17. Artusa, M. Donde habita el silencio. Clarín VIVA supplement. Domingo 20 Julio 2003.
  18. Galeano, E. Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina. Catálogos. Argentina .2001. p.63
  19. Alerta Salta.

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