Of all the land disputes between indigenous communities and large landowners that have mushroomed in Argentina during the last decade, none acquired the public notoriety of the battle waged in the northern Patagonian province of Chubut in 2004. The David-and-Goliath elements of the confrontation ensured unprecedented media attention to an issue long neglected by mainstream Argentina.
It began when Atilio Curiñanco and Rosa Rua Nahuelquir, an unemployed Mapuche couple who had occupied 385 hectares of an empty plot in Santa Rosa to raise goats and grow vegetables for their family, were evicted and taken to court by the country’s largest landowner, Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentina, owned by Italian clothing giant Benetton.
Atilio Curiñanco and Rosa Rua Nahuelquir in their state-provided home.
Compañía’s controversial history further fuelled the debate. The wool-producing company was created in the late nineteenth century when General Julio Roca donated about 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of land across Patagonia to a small group of British investors in gratitude for their help in the “conquest of the desert,” in which an estimated 100,000 Mapuches were killed.
In May 2004 a court decision sided with the multinational, declaring the occupied land in Santa Rosa was part of Compañía. This dashed the hope for Mapuches, as well as for other indigenous groups in Argentina, that a potential legal loss for Benetton would turn the case into a landmark recognition of indigenous rights as laid out by the 1994 constitution. The new constitution not only recognizes the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous peoples in Argentina, but also their rights to traditional lands and their active participation in managing their natural resources.
Estimates of the indigenous population in Argentina vary widely from 450,000 to 2 million, or about one to four percent of the country’s total population of 36 million. A census of indigenous people was taken in 2001 for the first time in decades, but the official results have inexplicably never been revealed. More than 90% of the estimated 200,000 Mapuches hold no property titles to their land, according to a study conducted by the Catholic Church-based Equipo Nacional de Pastoral Aborigen.
“When Article 67 was incorporated in the Constitution, the state never thought for one moment of the consequences,” explains Ricardo González, a lawyer based in Buenos Aires who specializes in indigenous rights. “There is no political interest whatsoever in upholding any indigenous rights.”
This perception was confirmed last July when Argentina emerged as one of a handful of nations (and the only in Latin America) at the United Nations to abstain from joining a nonbinding statement on the rights of indigenous peoples in international law.
So did the Benetton case make any lasting contribution in the indigenous land debate in Argentina?
In a new, outlying neighborhood of the originally Welsh settlement of Esquel, Atilio and Rosa Curiñanco today live in a state-subsidized concrete house, the fate of many landless Mapuches who are forced into one of the region’s bigger cities. Atilio works occasionally in construction but he dreams of returning to the land they were forced to leave. Almost two years since the trial in Esquel, Rosa still feels the sting of disappointment, compounded by a fruitless visit to Rome, as part of a small group, to talk directly with the Benetton family. “They promised to come up with an offer for us, but we are still waiting,” Rosa says.
They also feel resentment toward the local activist group Organización Mapuche Tehuelche 11 de Octubre (named after the last day before Columbus reached America), which originally took up the Curiñancos’ case for symbolic reasons. “We were the ones who put our necks on the line when we occupied the property peacefully, and yet we gained nothing,” Atilio says.
Gustavo Macayo, the couple’s attorney, who works pro-bono for a variety of similar land disputes, is also disappointed that the Rome trip failed to yield results. He believes that Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who arranged the meeting in Rome and traveled with the group, was too busy trying to reach a compromise with the multinational.
From the headquarters of his Foundation for the Service of Peace and Justice (SERPAJ) headquarters in Buenos Aires, Pérez Esquivel blames instead the intransigence shown in Rome by Macayo and Mauro Millán, the leaders of 11 de Octubre. “At one point in the meeting, Millán said that ‘we Mapuches have resisted [the Spaniards and later the Chilean and Argentine governments] for the last 500 years, and we can resist another 500 years.’ He and Macayo weren’t interested in a dialogue. I was seeking some concrete solutions.”
A painful picture emerges of a group of activists turning against each other in their failure to wrench any concessions from a powerful multinational, even though their dispute was with Benetton and ultimately the Argentine state. “The main protagonists are still digesting what happened. The learning process has only just begun,” says
Claudia Bríones an anthropologist at the University of Buenos Aires.
Certainly in Chubut, organized Mapuche resistance is in its infancy compared with the more experienced Mapuche groups in Chile or those further north in the provinces of Río Negro and Neuquén, where the Argentina’s largest number of Mapuche live. In Río Negro, for instance, local Mapuche groups lobbied officials to gain a landmark ruling against an eviction attempt in 2004.
From his Esquel home, where he runs a Mapuche jewelry-making business, 11 de Octubre’s Millán rejects the notion that the Benetton episode was a lost opportunity. “The fact that the media is still asking me questions is keeping the land issue alive,” he says. Benetton’s image did suffer from the incident, and it is no coincidence that in 2005, the company’s first monthly blog covering topical issues was devoted to indigenous issues and included a piece on how Aborigines are suing the national government over land in western Australia.
In a symbolic gesture of social responsibility, Benetton also used the site to announce in November 2005 that it would donate 7,500 hectares of land to the Chubut government. The donation—rejected by Mapuche groups because they don’t believe the land is Benetton’s to donate—is a response to the negative publicity gained by the Santa Rosa debacle, according to Millán.
Forced under closer media scrutiny, Benetton will have to be more wary of any future evictions, argues Millán. To illustrate this point, his colleagues, Hernan Sciafini and Marcelo Huaypura, take me to visit Leleque station, a village of about eight families where Atilio Curiñanco once lived. Surrounded by the Benetton-owned Leleque Estancia and not far from Santa Rosa, the families in the rundown railway houses have not been evicted because the village is officially on state land. Even so, in the past, Benetton has threatened to kick out the families so it can transform the village loading station into part of the nearby Leleque museum—which was set up by the Italian company to display a history of the Mapuche people and culture.
Benetton wants to incorporate the this part of Leleque for its Mapuche museum.
At the school that Leleque residents fear will be closed down, Hernan has gathered the women of the village to explain a sewing project that the Italian NGO “¡Ya Basta!” is planning to promote business activities among local Mapuche. The women laugh at the suggestion that if the project takes off, they could be providing future competition for Benetton.
Macayo, the Curiñancos’ attorney, believes the way forward is to slowly capture public spaces. “We weren’t so much interested in the result of the trial, which was very hard to win, as much as installing the theme of land and indigenous people into wider society,” he says. “We have been able to show that racism exists here. We don’t have a declared apartheid in Chubut but a virtual one.”
Non-Mapuche residents of Esquel are beginning to understand firsthand some of the complaints expressed for several years by Mapuche in rural areas, such as how Benetton’s wire fences cut off their access to water. Samir Said, a local teacher, explains that to go fishing in the river (an increasingly popular tourist attraction in the area) with his son, he has to ask permission from the manager of Leleque Estancia, Ronald McDonald. Areas around rivers should be accessible to all Argentines under the law, he says.
And in recent years a growing number of citizens have taken to the streets to protest the Canadian mining company Meridian Gold, whose mining activities in the area are believed to endanger much of the local forests and pristine lakes that attract so many tourists during the summer. “At one point in 2003, we had between 5,000 and 6,000 people marching in the streets,” Macayo says. “Ultimately, a judge is going to take into account such mobilizations when he makes a decision about a mine or a land dispute.”
Politicians are also being forced to respond to this growing culture of activism. In May 2006, huge roadblocks formed in the riverside city of Gualeguaychú, located three and a half hours north of Buenos Aires. The massive protests were directed at Spanish and Finnish pulp mills across the river in Uruguay. Activists said the mills were polluting the sparkling waters of the river that divides the two countries. “In the end, Kirchner joined the protests, not because he was originally against the pulp mills but because the popular movements had led the way,” Macayo says.
“The Gualeguaychú movement was inspired by the ‘no to the mine’ movement here in Esquel,” Macayo continues. “These conflicts are feeding off each other, and more people are making connections.”
Rejection of Benetton Donation
A new chapter in Benetton’s rocky relationship with Patagonia was opened in June 2006. After months of silence on the Benetton donation, the Chubut government announced its decision to reject the land offer. This was a surprise, given the perception that the local government had previously green-lighted Benetton’s activities. Government investigators had found that the majority of the area located 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) from Gualjaina, in an area called Piedra Parada, was unproductive and of poor quality.
Federico Sartor, spokesman for Benetton at the company’s headquarters in Treviso, Italy, admits that that the company “cannot hide the fact that things have become much more difficult.”
“We were very surprised by the decision of the local governor of Chubut to refuse the donation,” he adds.
Contrary to the damning report on the land, Sartor insists that the land has over 10 kilometers of coast on the Chubut river and that water in Patagonia is one its most valuable resources. Sartor points to studies of the area that show the land can produce wild berries, fruits, vegetables and even wine, along with the area’s more traditional sheepherding. He also says the area could be developed for tourism and that, finally, it is near a main road, a city and a local school.
It is too early to judge whether the surprise decision is genuinely based on bad test results or if it is politically motivated. Chubut’s Governor Mario Das Neves, a close ally of President Néstor Kirchner, is seeking re-election.
Whatever the reason, the province’s relationship with its biggest landowner will continue as the most important test of the Argentine government’s commitment to indigenous rights, which to date remains stubbornly inadequate.
Ali Qassim is a freelance journalist specializing in Latin America and Spain.