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DEVELOPMENT-ARGENTINA: Utter Poverty in Former Reserve

Marcela Valente

PIZARRO, Argentina, Aug 12 2004 (IPS) - The cows in this arid former nature reserve in northwestern Argentina are so bony that they do not even look like they belong to the same species as their robust cousins to the south, in the rich pampas (grasslands) of the central part of the country.

They barely give milk, and provide little meat, just enough to keep their owners – poor campesinos or peasant farmers who live in improvised corrugated iron and wooden shacks with plastic bags as insulation and wear heavily patched and re-patched clothes – from dying of hunger.

No one imagined the utter abandonment in which the local campesinos and indigenous people were living in the General Pizarro nature reserve – until the provincial authorities decided to sell off the public land to agribusiness interests for planting soy, and their plight began to draw limited media attention.

An unprecedented decision by the government of the northwestern province of Salta eliminated the arid woodland area’s legal status as a nature reserve and auctioned off a large part of the area to agribusiness firms.

“In 1994, the Eben Ezer Wichí indigenous community had no vaccines (which health authorities must by law provide in Argentina), and half of the children died before their first birthday,” evangelical Pastor Gabriel Ramos told IPS.

But “The government doesn’t care because they have no identity documents, they don’t vote, they don’t even figure as Argentine citizens, because they are born and die without ever being officially registered,” he argued.

Ramos carries out his pastoral work in the Salta department (state) of Anta, where the former reserve, home to more than 3,000 campesinos and Wichí Indians, is located.

Although the terrain has not yet been occupied by the new owners – challenges brought against the sale in court are still pending – the reserve is not very “protected”.

The reserve was created in 1995 for the conservation of a 25,000-hectare area, which is just a tiny fraction of the “Chaco serrano” woodlands leading up to the foothills of the Andes mountains, and is home to dozens of endangered plant and animal species.

But in nearly 10 years, not a single park ranger has been assigned to the reserve, nor has funding been earmarked to enable local residents to make sustainable use of its biological diversity and to equip them with minimal conditions of health and sanitation.

Ramos, meanwhile, said “The discrimination against the Wichí community is tremendous. The government says they are lazy alcoholics, and the rest of the people in the area basically ignored them until they realised that if there is any hope of holding onto these lands, it will be because they, the Wichís, are here.”

Wichí chief Donato Antolín described the difficult lives of his people. The men, the only members of the community who speak a bit of Spanish, gather firewood and honey and hunt animals in the forest, while the women make arts and crafts products with natural fibres and seeds.

The ethnic group’s traditions remain intact, according to Ramos, but without any assistance from the state, and at a high social cost. This month Ramos and Antolín will travel to Buenos Aires to file complaints with the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI).

“Although Salta is the most multi-ethnic of Argentina’s provinces and is home to nine of the country’s 10 indigenous ethnic groups, INAI is located 1,600 km from here, in Buenos Aires,” complained Ramos, the only non-indigenous person in the area who speaks Wichí and maintains close contact with the Indians.

While the Wichí community receives no medical assistance or formal education, Salta Governor Juan Carlos Romero of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, to which President Néstor Kirchner also belongs, runs the province like a feudal lord, his critics complain.

The local political elites “are involved in agriculture, industry, the media, banks, insurance companies, etc.,” town councillor Beatriz Ponce remarked to IPS.

“They win the elections because people vote with their stomachs, and won’t bite the hand that feeds them – or gives them a blanket or maybe a pair of shoes,” said Ponce, who represents the residents of Pizarro, the small town located in the reserve.

Attempts at dialogue with the authorities have been in vain. Provincial officials are always “out of the office” or “travelling” when local residents ask for a meeting. And their phone calls are never answered.

In the Eben Ezer Wichí village, while Antolín talks with IPS, the women and children don’t approach any closer than around 50 metres.

The women can’t speak Spanish “but they understand,” he said. “The children don’t go to school because there is no bilingual teacher. I went to ask, but they never sent one,” he complained.

Ramos set up a little school in his home, but the Salta provincial government ordered him to pay taxes, as a “private school”, or close it down.

The Wichís tried attending the local public school. “The teacher told me: ‘Donato, these children don’t speak, they just sit there in silence.’ And I told her to be patient until they can understand” Spanish.

But after a while, the children got fed up, and did not want to go to school anymore. Others were directly turned away by the school.

None of the children of the 25 Wichí families in the reserve has received an education.

Every once in a while, members of Ramos’s church visit the village. They bring food, and vaccinate the children. Sometimes they take villagers who are ill to the nearest hospital, 120 km away.

Ten years ago, the Wichís – who traditionally lived deep in the surrounding dry, thorny woodlands – moved near the town to work on construction sites in exchange for food.

That is when Ramos starting helping the community. The children had not been vaccinated, and many had died of cholera. “In one family with eight children, only four survived,” said the pastor.

The women still give birth without assistance, and the few cases of anaemia that health workers have been able to diagnose are severe, said Ramos.

“Once I arrived and a woman had been in labour for two days, but the baby was stuck,” he said. He drove her to the hospital, and “by a miracle” the baby shifted position and was born without difficulties. “We prayed the whole way there,” he recalled.

Carlos Ordóñez, a Pizarro resident who owns a small grocery store, came to this remote spot when the privatisation of the state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) left him without a job in the mid-1990s, after he had worked for the company for 22 years in Tartagal, another department of Salta.

Ordóñez has drawn some media attention to the provincial government’s decision to remove the reserve’s status as a protected area and sell off the public land, where the campesinos live in extreme poverty, scraping by with a few cows and goats that roam the surrounding bush.

“They tell us we’re invaders because we are living on public land. But I tell them that this is how all towns emerge, as settlements around workplaces,” said Ordóñez, who points out that Pizarro was created around the sawmills installed in 1936 to lay in the railway, which no longer exists.

Nicasia Reyes is a 46-year-old campesina who was born and raised outside of Pizarro. She gave birth to three of her 12 children in the countryside, without any help. “I tied the umbilical cord, washed them, and dressed them,” she says simply, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The drinking water is not safe. “Many people have parasites because all we have is a chlorine dosifier, and there is no sewage system,” said Ordóñez.

Furthermore, a large stockbreeding establishment that opened uphill from Pizzaro threatens to leave the town without water.

“People here suffer in silence, because they are afraid to protest. That is our idiosyncrasy: we are frightened of being squashed by those in power, as the Spanish did during the conquest,” said Ordóñez, referring to the massacres of indigenous people in the Americas perpetrated by the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Several local officials have come to Pizarro in the last few weeks to try to convince the local residents to give up their land, which has been sold to large agricultural producers taking part in Argentina’s boom in transgenic soy.

In the past, “they only came sometimes with their coolers to hunt vizcachas (Lagostomus maximusa – a large rodent) and tapirs (Tapirus terrestris – a large noctural ungulate) in and outside of the reserve,” even though that was illegal, Lorenzo Cosme, another local resident of Pizarro, told IPS.

If the World Bank only knew what the officials did with the funds granted for environmental protection, “they would not give them one more cent,” said Ordóñez, who would like to inform the multilateral lending institution of the situation.

But “I don’t have a computer, and if I write them by hand, they won’t read it,” he said. He is thinking about selling his pick-up truck to buy a computer. “I’m going to somehow get one, and I’ll send them a letter so they can find out what’s going on around here,” he added.

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