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Indigenous Rights

Native People’s Land Demands Gain Visibility in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 28 2013 (IPS) - The native people of Argentina are achieving unprecedented visibility for their demands. However, they are still faced with hurdles to more rapid progress towards their claims.

This week Félix Díaz, leader of the Qom, one of the 160 indigenous communities in the northeastern province of Formosa, was received by Pope Francis at the Vatican where he explained to the pontiff the demands made by his community, composed of 450 families.

The meeting was just one example of the prominence being achieved by native people in this country, where they have traditionally been the object of discrimination. In the past, governments have at best met their demands with paternalism or a handout mentality, but things are changing.

Díaz first came to public notice as a result of a protest carried out by his community in Formosa in 2010. A police clampdown on the protest left one person dead.

Now the demands have a place on the agenda of the national state and the provinces. The Supreme Court receives indigenous leaders to settle land conflicts and the media provide coverage on their historical issues and current problems.

“In 2010, at the bicentennial (of Argentina’s independence), we started to have serious talks with the state. Because 200 years had gone by without an in-depth policy for indigenous peoples and we did not just want a ceremony, we wanted something more significant,” Fidel Colipán, a Mapuche leader, told IPS.

Colipán highlighted the national law enacted in 2006 that suspended evictions of communities from their ancestral homelands. The law laid down a deadline for completing a survey of indigenous lands in order to draw up a detailed map.

But enforcing this law, which has already had to extend the deadline, is turning out to be controversial not only due to the private interests of companies that exploit natural resources in these territories, but also to resistance from the provincial governments.

The most recent census, taken in 2010, indicates that nearly one million people in this country of 41 million consider themselves to be of native descent. The number has increased since the 2004 census, when about 640,000 people claimed indigenous identity.

The latest constitutional reform in 1994 recognised the “pre-existence” of native peoples in the national territory and acknowledged their right to community ownership of land and bilingual education.

In recent years, conflicts have increased in number and visibility. Pushed off their land by the expansion of soy monoculture, mining, fossil fuel exploitation and deforestation, indigenous peoples have raised their voices in protest.

The government’s indigenous affairs institute, INAI, maintains that the 1994 constitution recognised the pre-existence of the indigenous peoples but also gave ownership of natural resources to the provincial authorities, which makes enforcement of territorial policies problematic.

This conspires against conflict resolution, said INAI president Daniel Fernández. However the institute says more progress is being made than ever before on surveying and demarcating indigenous territories.

According to INAI estimates, out of the 12 million hectares claimed as indigenous lands, equivalent to approximately 10 percent of the national territory, 4.5 million hectares have already been recognised and titled.

Conflicts flare up when valuable natural resources are at stake, or when the lands claimed by indigenous groups are in private hands. An estimated 60 percent of the land claimed by native communities is owned by the state and 40 percent by the private sector.

In order to comply with recognition of native peoples’ lands, state authorities in some cases have to expropriate land from private owners.

“In Neuquén, in the south of the country, INAI signed a contract for the survey of indigenous territories and even deposited the funds to pay for it, but the problem is the lack of political will on the part of the provincial government,” said Calipán. “We are very suspicious of those who have always persecuted us.”

In a 2012 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, highlighted that Argentina “has taken important steps” toward the recognition of native people’s rights, but also warned that “greater efforts” were needed.

The report on the situation of indigenous peoples in Argentina says that despite legal advances, “a significant gap remains between the established regulatory framework on indigenous issues and its actual implementation.” Anaya wrote his report after visiting several communities in 2011.

But not all indigenous leaders felt represented by this approach. “Anaya, like many who come here from the global North, proposes spectacular solutions that turn out to be very difficult to apply,” said Colipán.

The greater visibility of the demands of native peoples is also a result of the work of a number of human rights organisations.

Díaz, the leader of the Qom, visited the new pope, who is from Argentina, together with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

Most of the civil society organisations created in Argentina to fight human rights violations perpetrated by the 1976-1983 dictatorship have recently turned to supporting the demands of native minorities and their struggles for access to land.

In an interview with IPS, Paola García Rey, the coordinator of human rights promotion and protection for the Argentine chapter of Amnesty International, said “we cannot be blind to the progress that has been made,” but there are many pending challenges.

“Any assessment of the indigenous scenario today has to be heterogeneous. No province has rigorously fulfilled the law on land surveys, but some have made progress with a good level of participation, for example Jujuy and Salta,” in the northwest of the country, she said.

García Rey said there has been progress in signing contracts between INAI and the provincial governments for carrying out land surveys, “but later they are blocked,” and in some cases evictions of indigenous communities from their ancestral lands have continued.

She said the idiosyncrasies of indigenous demands have to be understood. On the land question, the logic followed by native peoples is not that of private property but of community ownership. But to have that right, the law requires them to register as an association, which is contrary to their customs.

The Plurinational Indigenous Council (CPI), which represents more than 30 native groups in Argentina, expressed concern about a civil code reform under way which would recognise their right to communal land, but based on private property criteria.

In the view of INAI’s Fernández, far from restricting indigenous rights, the new civil code bill seeks to make them operational and compulsory in order to build up case law and precedents.

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