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ARGENTINA
Mapuche return to their roots
Pablo Waisberg
1/29/2003
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Driven by economic necessity and the loss of their traditions, the Mapuche attempt to recover their ancestral lands.

Over the past decade, Mapuche people have been migrating from rural areas in greater numbers in an effort to escape harassment by non-indigenous Argentines and build a better life. Once in the city, however, they often find themselves caught in a downward spiral of poverty and isolation. So in the late 1990s, they began trying to recover their ancestral lands from private businesses and the Argentine government.

Those efforts have brought them up against powerful corporations and landowners who claim land rights under a variety of treaties, including some that date back to the Spanish conquest. They must also deal with a legal system that has refused to recognize the Mapuche as an indigenous people.

Although the Mapuche people’s rights are guaranteed by the 1994 Constitution, the government agencies responsible for protecting them, such as the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI), are slow to act.

On Oct. 2, members of the Curiñanco family were forcibly evicted from a seven-hectare plot of land they had occupied in late August. The land was part of a 900,000-hectare estate in the province of Chubut, in Patagonia, which the British owned Southern Argentine Land Company had acquired in 1896. The Curiñancos had built a hut, sown wheat and potatoes and planted fruit trees.

Before settling on the land, family head Atilio Curiñanco had consulted the government’s Autarchic Institute for Rural Colonization and Development in Esquel. Officials told him that the land in Leleque, about 100 kilometers from Esquel, was government property. Shortly after the family members settled there, however, estate manager Ronald McDonald began to harass them. On Aug. 30, the Southern Argentine Land Company, which was purchased in 1991 by the Italian-based Benetton group, filed a formal complaint, claiming the family had occupied the land illegally. Police evicted the Curiñancos.

"Although the Benetton case is the best known, there are many other cases in which Mapuche people, individually or collectively, have attempted to recover their ancestral lands. Some are still in progress, while in others the lands have been won back," said Mauro Millán of the 11th of October Organization of Mapuche-Tehuelche Communities.

The land struggle began in 1879, when Gen. Julio Argentino Roca’s troops defeated the Mapuche in southern Argentina in a military offensive known as the Desert Campaign. Government troops broke the indigenous resistance through bribery, with assistance from some Mapuche leaders.

"Mapuche chiefs who fought for Roca were rewarded with land, and the first [indigenous] communities were established there," Millán said, recounting the story told to him by his grandparents. "Each of the allies received land to cultivate, but they were never given definite property rights. In 1920, with the wave of immigration from Europe, many newcomers received land titles, and in 1937, there was a massive eviction of the Mapuche communities."

The policy of harassment and settlement by outsiders led to a breakdown of the traditional structures of Mapuche society. Traditionally, each extended family was considered a community, with its own government. Now, however, communities consist of anywhere from 25 to several hundred families.

"In the past, each family or community was represented by its own lonco or chief, who was appointed by the elders. Now, the head of the community, who is the official representative of the community before the government, is named by the executive branch of the government," Millán said. "That means that the governor of Chubut decides who will represent the community. Those appointed always have ties to the government."

The political appointment of community representatives has caused unrest in Mapuche communities because the chiefs often "use government welfare programs, such as food aid or temporary jobs, to gain a degree of power they otherwise would not have", Millán said.

The INAI lists 14 Mapuche communities in Chubut. According to the 11th of October Organization of Mapuche-Tehuelche Communities, however, more than 40 rural communities in the region participated in a provincial meeting last year.

"That figure is not completely accurate, as it only includes those who participated," Millán said. "Many others did not attend."

Millán estimates that 60 or 70 percent of the people in Chubut are of Mapuche descent. There are no precise statistics because the government has never included the communities in the national census.

"Despite the difficulties in the country, and the ones we face as a people, we are developing an effective plan to recover our lands," Millán said. "That’s why the government is so quick to carry out evictions. But we’re organizing, and whenever they try to throw a family off its land, we get together and try to prevent it." While they have not been able to stop the evictions and have been charged with "collective usurpation," they have so far avoided arrest.

"We still lack coordination, but we stand firm in our decision to stay put and fight for our land. The government is playing with our lives, because the evictions are violent. This is the land where our ancestors lived. The land has always belonged to us, and there’s a conflict between Mapuche rights and Argentine law," Millán said. "There are many unemployed people in the provincial capital who don’t deserve such a life. We want to exercise our rights as an original people and find a solution to the economic problems."

 

 

 


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