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ARGENTINA: First-Ever Permit for Indigenous Community Radio

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 30 2005 (IPS) - The first operating licence ever granted by the Argentine government to an indigenous community radio station is being hailed as a major step forward in giving a voice to this sector of the population, while posing formidable challenges.

The FM radio station, which has been operating without a licence for six years and has yet to be given a name, is run by the Mapuche Indian community of Linares, made up of around 700 members and located in the municipality of Aucapán, in the southern province of Neuquén.

According to the 2001 census, close to four percent of Argentina’s population of 37 million are indigenous people, who belong to various ethnic groups spread throughout the country, but who share many of the same problems: land ownership struggles, unemployment, poverty, marginalisation, and the erosion of their ancestral cultural identity.

"This radio station is very useful in terms of our daily lives, and will also help to raise greater awareness of our land claims and the problems we face," said Víctor Altimán, the "lonko" (political leader) of the Linares community, in a telephone interview from Neuquén.

There are two programmes on the air so far, and like the station itself, they do not yet have names. "We’re somewhat disorganised," apologised Eugenio Linares, one of the station’s technical operators.

"For the moment, what we want more than anything is for people to listen to us," he added, which is why all of the broadcasting is in Spanish, at least for now.

One of the two shows is a general interest programme that focuses on the main problems and concerns facing the Mapuche community, including land ownership conflicts, unemployment, alcoholism and women’s issues.

The station also plays an important community service role – especially crucial in the winter, which brings bitterly cold temperatures. Aucapán is situated in the foothills of the Andes mountains, and has no electrical power or telephone service, which makes the radio an invaluable means of communication for the local residents.

The other programme is a two-hour newscast featuring local, national and international news, with an emphasis on current events in Latin America. Linares told IPS that one of their goals for the future is to connect with networks of indigenous correspondents in northwestern and northeastern Argentina, although this will require a greater investment.

The equipment for the station was donated by the Italian non-governmental organisation Ricerca e Cooperazione, with the support of the Italian Foreign Ministry. For its part, the Argentina Community Radio Forum (FARCO) provided training courses.

Although Argentine broadcasting regulations prohibit radio station ownership by non-profit organisations, the Federal Broadcasting Commission (COMFER), the state agency that issues operating permits, modified the rules to make the Mapuche initiative possible.

COMFER plans to grant another eight licences to indigenous communities in the coming months, to aid in the dissemination of local aboriginal culture, particularly in border regions, where people often tune in stations from neighbouring countries.

Nevertheless, radio host Roberto Arias, a FARCO member who took part in the training of the new station’s staff, noted that official sanctioning by COMFER is not enough to guarantee the success of the project.

"Indigenous radio stations will soon be a reality throughout the country, but unless they can achieve visibility, these projects are doomed to an early death," he told IPS.

Over the course of almost a year and a half, Arias travelled to Aucapán once a week to train the Mapuche radio crew.

Most of the station’s 15 staff members had previous radio experience on school and community stations, but their knowledge and skills were limited to producing programmes, not running a whole radio station.

"The most difficult part is the administration of the station, getting it up and running and creating visibility," explained Arias.

The new station has already managed to gain support from local municipal governments, which will be purchasing air time for official advertising.

Because the nearest business is 40 km away, private commercial advertising is not a viable option for financing the station, which in any event is run with volunteer labour.

"COMFER may continue granting radio licences for the Mocovi Indians in the Chaco region and the Wichi community in Salta (both in northern Argentina), but without visibility, the survival of these stations, and of the project as a whole, cannot be guaranteed," Arias concluded.

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