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ARGENTINA: Expansion of Agricultural Frontier Endangers Native Communities

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 30 2007 (IPS) - Encroached upon by the expanding agricultural frontier and facing the indifference of the state, indigenous communities in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco have problems of access to water, food and their natural medicines, and are heading towards extinction.

Images of emaciated men and women suffering from hunger and tuberculosis in the district of Villa Río Bermejito are merely the epilogue to a long history of neglect and unaddressed demands for Toba, Wichí and Mocoví Indians in Chaco, one of Argentina’s poorest provinces.

More than a year after a month-long hunger strike by indigenous activists protesting serious irregularities in the distribution of public land over the past decade, the Nelson Mandela Centre for Studies and Research reported the deaths of 13 members of indigenous communities in the province in the last few months.

The deaths were caused by acute malnutrition associated in most cases with tuberculosis and other health problems like parasites, Chagas disease and cancer. “We are facing a humanitarian disaster,” Rolando Núñez, director of the Mandela Centre, told IPS.

The Mandela Centre said a study carried out by the national government in Villa Río Bermejito found 92 cases of malnutrition this month. The provincial government, which is run by the opposition Radical Civic Union, alleges that there is a political agenda behind the complaints.

“We have never hidden the hunger and the poverty here,” argued Governor Roy Nikisch. “We know perfectly well that because of their own culture and idiosyncrasies, they (indigenous people) do not let the state attend to them properly, don’t use medicines and reject medical treatment.”

In a report presented this month to the Supreme Court, the Mandela Centre said “the large-scale privatisation of public land and the irrational destruction of native forests” are causing illness and death among “starving” communities in Chaco.

Indigenous communities living in extreme poverty, suffering constant hunger, followed by illnesses characteristic of a disaster zone, are the tragic reflection of “systematic institutional, political, social, economic and educational degradation in the province,” stated the report.

Orlando Charole, president of the Chaco Institute for Indigenous Affairs (IDACH), told IPS that “for centuries we indigenous people have suffered complete subjugation across the entire continent, with a destructive impact on hundreds of ethnic communities.”

However, the communities that have held on tightly to their traditional forms of organisation and customs have survived, he said. What is at stake today is the groups’ ancestral territory, the basis of their way of life.

“An indigenous community cannot live without their land,” said Charole, who led last year’s protests for the right to land.

“Where can we live in accordance with our beliefs? Where can we fish, hunt and gather food? What can we use to make juice when there is no water? Where can we get our (traditional) medicines?” asked Charole, a Toba Indian.

According to the National Statistics and Census Institute, there are 450,000 indigenous people belonging to 25 different ethnic groups in this South American country of 37 million, although a significant proportion of the population is of mixed-race (indigenous and European) ancestry.

Environmental and social organisations complain that the expansion of agribusiness, mainly driven by the boom in genetically modified soybeans, and the resultant clear-cutting of native forests are wreaking havoc among indigenous communities that live farthest from urban centres.

Since 2004, the Environmental Defence Foundation of Argentina (FUNAM) has warned that the Mbya Guaraní community in the northeastern province of Misiones is slowly vanishing.

The local branch of Greenpeace International also says the clear-cutting of native forests to grow soybeans in the northwestern province of Salta is destroying the habitat of Wichí communities.

“They cut the forest and put up fences, and we are strangers on our own land,” Charole said, describing a similar phenomenon in Chaco. But authorities “seems to have a shield” against such complaints, which they simply ignore, he said.

“The Ministry of Social Development is sending food, but that is just a short-term solution. What we need is land, education, healthcare,” he said.

Charole was referring to the ministry’s decision to send, starting last May, a 30-kg package of food items every two months for each of the 2,000 families in the neediest areas. The aid includes 10 kg of flour, three kg of pasta, three kg of rice, five kg of powdered milk, two kg of sugar, and cans of peaches and luncheon meat.

“It is enough for a minimal diet for 15 days,” said the Mandela Centre’s Núñez. But to achieve a balanced diet, the local families would have to complement the food aid by hunting and gathering wild fruit, which they are less and less able to do because of the growing deforestation in the area.

According to the Dirección Nacional de Bosques, the national forestry agency, Chaco ranks third among Argentina’s 23 provinces in terms of the proportion of territory deforested in recent years, because of the advance of the agricultural frontier.

And not only are the forests being cut down, but traditional crops like cotton are increasingly being displaced by export products such as soybeans and corn.

However, senators from Chaco and other affected provinces refuse to vote for a draft law on forests that has already made it through the lower house of Congress. The law would ban logging, which would only be authorised through permits issued in cases in which neither the environment nor local communities were affected. The legislation would also provide for land-use zoning.

In the last 10 years, the area in Chaco province planted in cotton declined from 700,000 to 100,000 hectares, and indigenous peoples’ chances of finding temporary harvest work shrank accordingly.

Lack of water is another serious problem. The Mandela Centre reports that near the Chaco district of Miraflores, Wichí communities live in infrahuman conditions.

In 1996, the authorities installed a solar-powered water pump there. But a few months later, they took the engine away. The local residents are now back to drinking water out of ponds, lagoons and artificial lakes formed by dams, and some people have trained themselves to go without water to such an extent that they become dangerously dehydrated, says the Mandela Centre.

In addition, the only health clinic serving the communities has been left without supplies and staff.

Charole said a national policy on indigenous affairs is needed, including regulations on access to land, health plans that take traditional medicine into account, and provisions for bilingual schoolteachers. “This can’t be solved with two or three bags of food,” he asserted.

In June 2006, some 3,000 indigenous people in Chaco marched from Villa Río Bermejito to Resistencia, the provincial capital – a distance of more than 400 km.

They were protesting the irregular distribution of public land to private owners. Under provincial law, the land was to be granted to indigenous communities or native and non-native small farmers, along with development aid and loans. The families were to receive small farms of 650 to 1,200 hectares in size

But the Mandela Centre alleged that the provincial Colonisation Institute – the government agency in charge of distributing the land in question – sold it to private interests at ridiculously low prices.

Many of the beneficiaries were large-scale producers of soybeans and other crops, some of whom lived in other provinces, and the tracts of land they were granted were over 10,000 hectares in size.

The Mandela Centre reported at the time that only 660,000 hectares of government land were left in the province of Chaco, down from 3.9 million hectares in 1995.

When the provincial authorities refused to engage in talks with the protesters after they reached Resistencia, nine of the activists held a hunger strike in a hearing room that they had occupied in the provincial capitol building.

The hunger strikers fasted for 32 days before the provincial government finally agreed to take part in talks. But over a year later, the promises made during the negotiations have not been fulfilled, and the result has been more malnutrition-related deaths.

The solutions promised at the time included plots of land for indigenous communities and small farmers, title deeds to rural property that indigenous people already live on, bilingual teachers, and a larger budget for IDACH, with funding that was to go towards farm equipment and inputs for indigenous farmers and building materials for housing in native communities.

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