The Silences of Dispossession: Agrarian Change and Indigenous Politics in Argentina (Review)

Mercedes Biocca's insightful book reveals dynamics of resistance and acquiescence to soybean expansion in two Indigenous communities in the heart of Northern Argentina.

December 1, 2023

Cover of "The Silences of Dispossession: Agrarian Change and Indigenous Politics in Argentina" (Pluto Press, 2023)

Last summer I had the opportunity to visit the Chaco province in Northern Argentina, an area near the Paraguayan border known for agricultural production, meteorites, and a biennial sculpture festival. While driving along the province's roads, I witnessed the pervasive presence of soy monoculture on both sides of the road. After traveling hundreds of kilometers, I reached localities surrounded by the same green and flat landscapes. There, Indigenous communities encapsulate the changes wrought by this export-oriented monocrop on their rural livelihoods and territories. Mercedes Biocca’s ethnographic study The Silences of Dispossession delves into the agrarian transformations shaped by the persistent advance of the agribusiness model in Argentina. Biocca's central goal is to understand the ways in which Qom and Moqoit Indigenous communities perceive, experience, and resist or accept agribusiness expansion in their localities.

Chaco has one of the largest Indigenous populations in Argentina. Since ancient times, Wichís, Qom, and Moqoit communities have inhabited this territory and experienced the advance of dominant projects, which currently take the shape of soybean monoculture expansion. In her book, Biocca explores why the Moqoit families in Las Tolderías did not organize protests against agribusiness, while in Pampa del Indio, Qom communities fostered a range of tactics to resist the advance of large-scale corporate agribusiness. The former is a small village in the province's southeast, mainly inhabited by Moqoit families settled in a dispersed territory. The latter is larger in terms of population and hectares and situated in the northwest part of the province. The main source of livelihood for both communities is agricultural production.  

In the opening section, the author conducts a fresh analysis of the accumulation by dispossession theory posed by David Harvey. The famous Marxist economic geographer pointed out that capitalism expands by incorporating new territories and social sectors into the market through devices of violence and plunder, such as the privatization of lands, eviction of rural communities, and enforcement of free-market economic rules. Biocca disentangles this concept compellingly, pointing out that theories often miss the rootedness of specific local contexts. The meanings of “dispossession,” therefore,  might vary depending on the particular historical, political, economic, and cultural context in which it is carried out. This approach allows the author to understand how the mechanisms of dispossession work in different settings, specifically in Chaco.

Biocca then invites the reader to explore the collective histories of these two communities. I would recommend Biocca’s historical analysis to anyone interested in the history of the Indigenous people in Northern Argentina. What I found most interesting is that the author invokes the memories of Qom and Moqoit peoples not only with a descriptive goal but also with an analytical exploration at their past and present. This perspective reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s approach to history: to shed light on the present, we must revisit the history of the defeated and bring their struggles to the forefront.

Biocca’s historical analysis revealed not only memories of oppression but also of consensus with dominant sectors. By going back in time with the author, the reader grasps the importance of addressing collective memory as a way of understanding the central question developed later in the book: How and why do Qom and Moqoit Indigenous communities perceive, experience, and resist or accept agribusiness expansion in their localities?

In the final chapters, the core of the text, Biocca, assembles the puzzle pieces. In the first case, the Qom people had a history of heterogeneous ways of resistance. In the 1990s, the transnational business group Unitec Agro S.A. bought large tracts of lands—which originally belonged to the Qom people—and founded the Don Panos soybean establishment occupying some 120,000 hectars. Qom people initially felt hopeful that the company would provide jobs and boost economic conditions, but conflict soon arose. Soybean production had serious health and environmental impacts related to illegal deforestation, the appropriation of lands, terrible working conditions, and the use of dangerous agrochemicals. Qom people decided to resist and express their grievances through different means and, along with Indigenous organizations, conducted petitions, roadblocks, and marches. In contrast, although soybean expansion has had similar consequences for Moqoit lands and communities, the Moqoit people did not seek avenues of collective resistance.

To explore this divergence, Biocca explains that Qom and Moqoit Indigenous families have uneven memories considering different historical periods. Qom people remember the time before colonization as the moment in which "they were all together" and "helped each other." Some also positively remember the so-called "great leaders,” community protagonists who represented Qom interests during the Argentine agro-export period between 1870 and 1930. They emphasize “their bravery in talking to whites.” Others keep alive the memories of the “Millenarist Movements" as events of resistance and struggle in which these leaders negotiated and lost power. The  Napalpí Rebellion of 1924 and the Zapallar movement in 1933 were both collective responses to the conditions of oppression and exploitation Indigenous communities experienced under the labor regimes enforced by the timber and sugarcane industries. In response, the police and paramilitary groups assassinated hundreds of Qom and Moqoit peoples. As Biocca points out, the results of these Indigenous rebellions "have had lasting consequences on the internal politics of these communities."

Furthermore, the Qom community remembers the period that followed, known as the Cotton Period between 1930 and 1960, as a positive one. The state granted them means for boosting their livelihoods, and local communities had access to a quality of life similar to that of criollo farmers. The latter is essential to understanding the Qom peoples’ case. Biocca establishes an important correllation between individuals who have positive memories about the role of the State in the past, and those who currently denounce the lack of government support. By acknowledging government sponsorship in the past, Qom people identify the absence of the state in the present.

Biocca calls those who advocate for support from the state apparatus “Indigenous peasants.” Their strategy is different from that of Qom “Indigenous representatives,”  who instead demand more autonomy from the state. They latter are made up of workers from the Instituto del Aborigen Chaqueño (Institute of the Aboriginal People of Chaco), who act as community representatives before the state. The author notes that the strategies of these two political actors sheds light on the divergent responses to soybean expansion employed by different Indigenous communities.

The strategies developed by Qom political actors have yielded uneven results. In different opportunities both parties—the state and the community—reached agreements that, ultimately, were only partially fulfilled by the state. Despite this, the struggles of Qom peoples have not being in vain. They gained support from the state to obtain agricultural tools and settled boundaries to restrict hazardous spraying over their lands, among other demands. As Biocca explains, these communities have made advances and suffered setbacks over time.

In the second case, the author found that the Moqoit people were forced to leave their ancestral land and move to Las Tolderías in the early 1990s, a region known for cotton cultivation. Small to medium-sized producers employed Moquit Indigenous people as salaried workers. This resulted in the Moqoit people losing their land and becoming dependent on "white" landowners. According to Biocca, the nature of these dynamics between land and labor deeply impacted the community. They perceive the expansion of soybean production as a phenomenon indirectly affecting them and soybean producers as "good neighbors" and "rural workers." Revealingly, Biocca notes that her interviews with Moqoit people conveyed “a sense of inevitability.” Furthermore, when the author asked about the history of their communities, interviewees often showed “little interest or curiosity about the history of their ancestors” or “a lack of knowledge” about their past. Since remembering past victories and defeats might empower the present struggles, the act of forgetting had the opposite effect, serving to weaken the resistance against agricultural expansion and dispossession. In this regard different authors, including the sociologist and historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, have pointed out the efforts of the Western Colonial canon to obscure Indigenous voices by erasing their past and rewriting an “official history.”

Central to Biocca's analysis and one of her most important contributions is to show that while Qom resistance places the role of the state in the center, the Moqoit people perceive settlers as the primary source of aid and have weaker ties to the state apparatus. It resonated with me how memories about the past, and not necessarily history itself, have particular impacts on individuals' perceptions about dominant groups and, as a result, how they construct relationships of bargaining or contention.

The author's arguments open avenues for further analysis, such as ways land relationships impact political and collective responses. As Biocca outlines, the Moqoit people were evicted from their territory while Qom families were not; this raises interesting questions about how different attachments to territory might foster or prevent claims from arising, and how dispossession—particularly with regards to land—impacts memories, perceptions, and experiences. This is a topic that merits further research.

Overall, this text offers a nuanced and critical analysis of the range of political responses Indigenous communities develop in response to an ever-expanding problem, i.e., the aggressive advance of the soybean frontier in Argentina. The methodological and theoretical work Biocca conducts is admirable because it involves complex ethnographic comparative work, which she is able to convey to the reader in an accessible way. The text effectively fulfills one of the primary objectives that animates the author’s research: “I also hope that this book will help uproot long-held essentialist points of view that have often reinforced the invisibilization and marginalization of the indigenous communities in Argentina,” she writes.  

Biocca’s book is an important contribution to a growing body of research centering Indigenous communities in Argentina. Like Gastón Gordillo in his book Nosotros vamos a estar acá para siempre and Florencia Tola in Yo no estoy solo en mi Cuerpo, she uses a critical perspective to challenge dominant narratives, center Indigenous people as agents of their history, and avoid universalizing narratives. In this regard, Biocca joins authors like Nancy Postero and Leon Zamosc in The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Latin America to capture the varying responses of Indigenous communities to oppression and exploitation by dominant sectors in Latin America. Finally, this book provides a critical account of the social consequences triggered by environmental degradation at the hands of agro-industrial expansion. It is a significant contribution to any study attempting to understand the dynamics and processes of resistance and acquiescence in rural contexts.

Sylvia Marina Ruiz is an international graduate student at Tulane University. She conducts research on socio-environmental issues in Argentina. Currently, she focuses on conservation and eco-tourism in Chaco.

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