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ARGENTINA: Indigenous People Camp Out in Plaza to Demand Land Rights

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 12 2006 (IPS) - “We have endured 500 years of plunder, humiliation, eviction and massacres; why wouldn’t we be able to bear a little cold and hunger now?” Orlando Charole, one of the leaders of a group of indigenous people who have been pursuing their land claims in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco for the past month, asked IPS.

Thousands of indigenous people are camping out in front of the provincial government building in Resistencia, the capital of Chaco, 700 km north of Buenos Aires, and blocking the adjacent streets. Charole, the president of the governmental Chaco Institute for Indigenous Communities (IDACH), is leading the protest.

The demonstrators are demanding that the governor of Chaco, Roy Nikisch, meet with them and respond to their charges about irregular sales of public land to large farmers and agribusiness interests, which they claim have been taking place for a decade, instead of transferring the land to indigenous communities and other poor farmers, as stipulated in the provincial constitution.

To support these demands, more than 3,000 indigenous people from the rural areas marched to Resistencia. When they were not received by Nikisch, they decided on Jun. 6 to remain outside the headquarters of the provincial government.

Nikisch refused to see them and on Jun. 9 filed charges accusing them of obstructing access to his office by government officials.

An improvised camp sprang up on Plaza 25 de Mayo, right across from the government house, where the indigenous protesters also blocked traffic in nearby streets. “They are staying there in subhuman conditions. Some people are sick and have undernourished children with them,” said Rolando Núñez, of the Nelson Mandela Research Centre in Chaco.

Núñez told IPS that no one from the Ministry of Public Health had shown up to assess the sanitary conditions of the protestors, all of whom live in poverty. “We went there with volunteer doctors, because many people are under stress and have headaches, and there are children with respiratory problems because of the cold (of the southern hemisphere winter),” he explained.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census, there are around 20 indigenous groups in Argentina totalling approximately 400,000 people, 56 percent of whom belong to the Mapuche, Kolla, Toba or Wichí communities. Close to 60,000 Toba, Mocoví and Wichí people live in Chaco.

The movement received backing on Jun. 9 from social organisations, trade unions and human rights groups in the province. Together they agreed to hold a province-wide day of protests on Jun. 14, centred on the indigenous people’s demands and a call for greater openness to dialogue on the part of the provincial government.

“We will camp here indefinitely and, if necessary, we will take stronger measures,” Charole said.

Charole was elected in 2005 to head up the government institute that represents indigenous peoples in the province. But instead of following in the footsteps of his predecessors and becoming just another government official, he has sided with the people he represents and is at the forefront of their land claims.

The protest started over a month ago, as a result of the impact of flooding on communities living on the edge of a jungle region known as “El Impenetrable”. Indigenous people there accused the mayor of Villa Río Bermejito, Lorenzo Heffner, of withholding food aid sent to them by the national government.

Local indigenous people, who urgently needed the food aid, discovered a warehouse full of perishable foods, 300 metres away from the town hall, which could have been distributed days earlier. On May 1 they removed these goods and piled them in front of the town hall in order to draw public attention to the misuse of the intended aid for political ends.

The indigenous campesino families then began a protest calling for Heffner to resign. The mayor has also been accused of discriminatory attitudes towards indigenous communities, and is involved in a federal trial on charges of fraud against the national social security organisation.

“My government welcomes participation by everybody who works,” was Heffner’s reply to the accusations. And he added: “If I loosen my grip, there will be a general contagion in every municipality in Chaco, and the whole province will be in chaos.” The prediction promptly came true, even though the mayor did not “loosen his grip.”

In mid-March, communities in other parts of the province started blocking roads, in solidarity with the indigenous people of Villa Río Bermejito, but bringing new demands to the movement. They complained that for a decade there has been fraudulent handling of state lands that are rightfully theirs.

In an interview with IPS, Núñez explained that out of 3.9 million hectares of public land that existed in the Chaco in 1995, only 660,000 hectares have not been handed out. But indigenous people, who should have been the main beneficiaries under the law, were excluded from the generous distribution of land.

The law states that publicly-owned lands should be transferred to indigenous people or campesinos (small farmers) in family-sized plots – between 650 and 1,200 hectares, according to whether they are intended for crops or for livestock û together with technical and other assistance to encourage the start of productive activity.

But “None of that happened,” Núñez said. Land belonging to indigenous reserves was instead transferred to private hands, and areas of up to 10,000 hectares were allotted to single beneficiaries, mainly large producers owning land in other provinces, as the activist’s organisation has proved. Some land was transferred to small farmers, but without the financial aid packages that were to accompany it.

“After a short time, the small producers, strapped for capital, sold their land to larger landowners,” Núñez commented. All this irregular dealing led to a massive concentration of land in very few hands.

According to the Nelson Mandela Research Centre, just seven percent of landowners hold 70 percent of the productive land in Chaco.

The body in charge of administering the land is the Institute of Colonisation, which has a permanent management staff and a board of directors that is renewed with every change of government. The Research Centre accused the institute of operating as “a rural real estate business,” and said that its administrators are growing rich as a result of the land sales.

Thus, the demands of the indigenous people are no longer limited to the resignation of the mayor of Villa Río Bermejito, but now include an audit of the Institute of Colonisation, a freeze on public land distribution, an inventory of the land that has and has not been distributed, and the annulment of irregular land transfers.

The Nikisch administration has agreed to suspend land distribution for 180 days, and acknowledged that the state still owns 680,000 hectares, a figure only a little higher than the estimate given by the Research Centre. But Nikisch has not agreed to a meeting with the indigenous community delegates. So the protestors are still camping out, and the tension is rising.

Their demands are supported by the Argentine Agrarian Federation, which links small and medium farmers throughout the country, and other social, religious, labour and human rights organisations in Chaco. Several national legislators and officials have also given the movement their backing.

The demonstrators insist that they will remain in the plaza in the centre of the provincial capital, even though they have insufficient food and shelter and no sanitary facilities, convinced that they have right on their side. “They complain that we are blocking the streets, but haven’t we the right to demand what is ours?” Charole asked.

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