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ARGENTINA: Indigenous Villages on the Auction Block

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 27 2005 (IPS) - The Argentine government has taken legal action to stop the imminent auction of a parcel of land in the northern province of Santiago del Estero that is home to 4,000 people, most of them of indigenous descent.

A church, cemetery and other public use areas are excluded from the auction.

The federal and provincial Ombudsmen’s Offices have filed an appeal with the courts in a last-minute effort to keep the auction, scheduled for this Thursday, from going ahead.

Within the 10,000-hectare parcel to be auctioned off, there are six villages inhabited by thousands of people with rights to the land, they maintain.

The six villages – San José de Boquerón, El Ceibal, Tres Varones, Santa Luisa, Nueva Simbolar and Villa San Juan – are located close together along the border with the neighbouring northern province of Salta, some 900 kilometres from Buenos Aires.

The Ombudsmen’s Offices have presented documents which prove that the land has been inhabited for at least 100 years.

The villages ended up on the auction block because the parcel of land they occupy was put down as collateral for a large loan taken out – and subsequently defaulted on – at the Banco Platense, a financial institution based far away in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires.

The bank, owned by a Santiago de Estero political leader, went bankrupt itself several years ago, leading to the liquidation of its assets to compensate the 2,000 former account holders demanding their deposits back.

The courts ordered the auctioning off of the land despite being fully aware that it was inhabited. The property is worth an estimated one million dollars.

A potential buyer has already come forward and attempted to convince the campesinos (peasant farmers) living in the villages to remain there and work for him.

But the villagers refuse to give up the rights they have earned to this land through long-time occupation. In accordance with the law, people can claim ownership of a plot of land if they can prove that they have lived on and worked it for over 20 years.

"They always come around with these promises about providing work, but the campesinos are the true owners of these lands, and they mustn’t let anyone else set foot on them," Nelly Veliz, president of the Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero (MOCASE), told IPS.

In an effort to stop the auction, MOCASE has organised a series of demonstrations over the last few weeks with the support of other civil society organisations in the province. They are demanding a definitive solution to an ongoing problem: threats of eviction, police harassment and political persecution targeting indigenous people and campesinos.

In 2003, the federal government sent a Human Rights Secretariat delegation to Santiago del Estero to investigate reports that paramilitary groups had been created to intimidate the local population with weapons and attack dogs, with the aim of coercing them into leaving the land they were living on. Numerous irregularities were documented by the delegation.

Two years ago, Veliz noted, a parcel of land in another part of the province owned by the same bank was auctioned off and dozens of families were evicted as a result. "This is a never-ending problem. The campesinos don’t have money to pay for lawyers and surveyors, but the land truly belongs to them," she said.

The problem stems from the fact that large real estate holdings are often purchased sight unseen, and it is only when the buyers take possession of the property that they discover there are thousands of people living on it.

Most of the families living on the land to be auctioned later this week are of indigenous descent.

The municipal commissioner of El Boquerón, one of the villages involved, is named Juan Cuellar, which was also the name of the military commander designated by the Spanish crown in 1753 to establish a "reducción" or settlement of indigenous people converted to Christianity in this area. The surname Cuellar is common in all six villages.

In one of the villages there is a small church built by the Jesuits in the 16th century. It was reportedly after the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish colonies that Commander Cuellar was put in charge of organising the indigenous inhabitants of the region into communities.

"The good thing about this case is that it is creating public awareness of an issue that has gone unresolved for years now throughout northwest Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay – the problem of land use and ownership," commented lawyer Pablo Muratore from the non-governmental group El Ceibal, which works with campesinos in the province.

Muratore joined the organisation as an advisor for a project aimed at providing training on the issues of land use and ownership and the rights of rural citizens.

The first point stressed to the campesinos involved in the project was the need to legally establish ownership of the land they occupy and farm, given the increasing encroachment of large-scale soy farming.

Through the project, the campesinos were able to share the cost of having their lands surveyed. But the legal procedures involved in officially establishing their ownership of land they have occupied and farmed for over 20 years have met with significant delays.

"This is a problem with a long history and no definitive solution," Muratore told IPS, noting that various economic interests have led to land ownership conflicts in the region over the decades.

"Many years ago, the big business was hardwood forestry, then came drilling for oil, and later, in the 1990s, these lands were used as collateral for large loans. Today it’s soy farming," he said.

Given the growing number of evictions in Santiago del Estero and other provinces, El Ceibal and other campesino advocacy groups have stressed the threat being posed to the traditional way of life practised in these settlements.

"The auctioneers think these people are worried about their houses and fields being sold off, but in fact they are following a way of life that is the complete opposite of the latifundium (large landed estate) model used in the Pampas region (in central Argentina), characterised by fenced fields, cattle concentrated in pens and a single owner as the boss," explained Muratore.

"Here there is no infrastructure, and everything is used collectively: the small reservoirs, the wells, the pastureland, everything is shared," he said. The livestock from the six villages graze freely across the entire area, which is much more extensive than in the case of intensive cattle farming.

The civil society organisations working with the campesinos are striving to defend this way of life, and are demanding the intervention of the federal and provincial government, not only through legal action to stop the scheduled land auction, but also with efforts to ensure legal recognition of the campesinos’ rights to this land.

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