United colours of land grab
by Sebastian Hacher - 18 december, 2003
Patagonia has a long history of colonial
oppression. But the corporate conquistadors behind the current round
of evictions are more renowned for their interest in worthy causes
than their cut-throat approach to real estate, reports Sebastian
In the extreme south of Argentina lies Patagonia,
a region which encompasses every imaginable climate and terrain
from turquoise rivers and lakes to desert and glaciers. Below the
'Cordillera', the pristine snow capped mountain range of the southern
Andes which separates Argentina and Chile, lies the flat and fertile
expanse of the pampas on which sheep and cattle graze.
In this area live the Mapuche. Known as the
'Gente de la Tierra' (People of the Earth), this indigenous population
has lived on both sides of the mountains without concern for nationality
for 10,000 years. For the last 500, they have resisted continual
invasions, extermination attempts, and land grabs. In 1879, over
1,300 Mapuche were massacred and their land confiscated for English
immigrants in a genocidal war, 'La Conquista del Desierto' (The
Conquest of the Desert). During this campaign, the Argentinian state
divided up the majority of the stolen land into 8,000 square kilometre
lots, and handed over 41 million hectares to less than 2000 settlers.
In subsequent years, Patagonia became a private
dominion for foreign and Argentinian landowners. Decimated, the
surviving Mapuche were condemned to live on the worst land, taking
refuge in the coldest and most inhospitable areas along the mountain
Today, the Mapuche are facing a new conquest
as rich Europeans and North Americans arrive to take advantage of
the low prices and open economy established under the globalization-friendly
presidency of Carlos Menem in the 1990s. In the last few years figures
such as Ted Turner, Jerry Lewis, Sylvester Stallone, Christophe
Lambert, and George Soros have become Patagonia's new landlords.
This influx of celebrities and business tycoons
amounts to a neo-colonial land grab of what little territory remains
in the Mapuche's hands. Rogelio Fermín, a Mapuche farmer,
describes the latest enclosures: 'Here they fenced off all that
they wanted. If it was a pretty valley, for that reason they appropriated
it, if it was beautiful pampas, they closed it out. They left us
among the stones, among the worst fields.'
United colors of property
Among the new owners of Patagonia two brothers
stand out, both for the amount of land they have managed to buy
and for the agreement they have reached with Mapuche families living
nearby. These two brothers are Carlo and Luciano Benetton.
The Benetton Group is today the largest landowner
in Argentina, with 900,000 hectares (an area equivalent to 900,000
football fields) in resource rich Patagonia. With nine percent of
the region's most cultivatable land, their holdings are 40 times
the size of the capital city, Buenos Aires, the second largest city
in Latin America.
Benetton not only has clothing outlets in
120 countries, but also controls freeways and telecommunications
companies in Europe. With a total of 7,000 retail stores and production
figures of 100 million articles a year, Benetton's average yearly
revenue is 7 billion Euros.
'Patagonia gives me an amazing sense of freedom,'
said Carlo Benetton on taking posession of his new Argentinian territory.
But Benetton gets more than just a personal sense of liberty out
of their ranch land: Benetton's 280,000 sheep produce 6,000 tons
of wool a year, ten percent of its production needs.
For a total of $50 million, Benetton bought
out the British owned Compania Tierras del Sur Argentina S.A. (called
simply 'La Compañía' by the local population) in 1991.
In return for land occupied by the Mapuche for 13,000 years, Benetton
constructed the Leleque Museum in 2002, to 'narrate the history
and culture of a mythical land.'
Mapuche and Benetton
Seven hundred meters away from the Leleque
Museum live the Curiñancos, a Mapuche family who found themselves
on the wrong side of Benetton's 'amazing sense of freedom.' After
the expropriation of their land in the 19th century many Mapuches
moved to the cities and became factory workers, a few remained behind
as subsistence farmers while today, under Benetton, some Mapuche
farmers work producing wool for a pitiful wage. Like other Mapuche,
Atilio Curiñanco made the journey to the city. Born and raised
in Leleque, he later moved to nearby Esquel. After suffering in
the slump that succeeded Argentina's economic crisis in December
2001, 52-year-old Atilio and his wife Rosa decided to return to
the fields. They would attempt to grow their own food, raise animals,
and start a micro-enterprise.
The Curiñancos contacted the Instituto
Autárquico de Colonización (IAC), a state managed
real estate agency, to request permission to occupy a piece of ranch
land called Santa Rosa, situated in front of a Benetton property.
The land was well known to the Mapuches as unoccupied indigenous
territory and the IAC verbally confirmed this. After waiting 8 months,
the Curiñancos still had not received a written response
about the Santa Rosa property.
When, in August 2002, the IAC finally presented
a note to the family stating that 'information has been obtained
that leads us to believe that the property is zoned commercial,'
and that 'our interest is to reserve it for a micro-enterprise,'
the Curiñancos decided to go ahead with their plans. On 23
August, they showed up at the Esquel Police station in Chubut and
made it known that they would be occupying Santa Rosa. The same
afternoon a group of campesinos began to work the land with the
little resources they had, to plow, sow vegetables, and raise animals.
On 30 August, however, the local Benetton
office declared that the Santa Rosa ranch was their company property.
Benetton issued a report claiming that the estate was not to be
used for cattle rearing and stated their intention to take control
of the property. After two months, the police dismantled and seized
the Curiñancos belongings and the family returned to
Esquel. The Benetton land surrounding the property remains unoccupied
'We went to land without harming anyone.'
says Atilio. We didn't cut a fence, we didn't go at night,
we didn't hide ourselves. We waited for someone to come to let us
know if it bothered them, to present us with a document that the
land belonged to someone, and no one ever showed up,'
To Benetton lawyer Martin Iturburu Moneff,
the dispute was not political but merely a problem of 'common delinquency,'
with no legal basis for the Curiñancos actions: 'To suggest
that restitution of the usurped land would restore the dignity of
a family who want to make ends meet would only confuse people. It
distorts things.' Weeks later he declared to the press that 'The
relationship between La Compañía and the Mapuche community
is excellent ... This is the first time that we have had any problems
The Curiñancos, however, say that
they will return to the land that was taken away from them, and
refuse to let Benetton redraw the lines of their history.
On 26 November 2002, more than a year since
the eviction, and after an intense campaign by the Curiñanco
family, the vice-president of La Compañía met with
them saying he would ask Bennetton to drop charges against them
if in return they would stop trying to recover the land. The Curiñancos,
convinced of their position, replied in the negative: 'Even if we
have to go to Italy, we are going to keep fighting for this land.'
Leleque: The next eviction?
Across the dusty highway from the Santa Rosa
property, Atilio's 85-year-old mother, Doña Calendaria, has
to jump the fence of the Benetton property to access water from
the area's only stream.
'The way to the Chubut River is a local road
that shouldn't be closed,' says Laura, a resident of the area for
40 years. She describes how the area changed when Benetton bought
the land in 1991: 'They have three gates with locks, and to enter
you have to request permission from them. You can't fish unless
you have permission, because they don't let you. Towards the end
of the property there are some families, but they can't leave through
the Benetton property, they have to go around it, a 90 km trip.'
Leleque is a village of 8 families, most
of whom but not all are Mapuche. They used to work for the Argentinian
railroad company loading wool, leather and other goods for transport
to the capital city. In 1992, a year after Benetton bought the surrounding
property, the loading stop in Leleque was closed.
'This used to be a beautiful town, but now
it looks like a cemetery,' says Calendaria's neighbour, Pichón
Llancaqueo. When the loading station was shut down, running water
for the families was cut off, and police stopped serving the area.
The local cemetery is now part of the Benetton estate, in the yard
of the Leleque Museum. Without work, drinking water or land to grow
food, the inhabitants of Leleque had only their animals to help
them survive. Then, at the end of September 2003, the state passed
a resolution prohibiting the village's inhabitants from keeping
animals. The same month Leleque's 50 inhabitants were told by the
state owned railroad company that they had three months to abandon
their homes to make way for a tourist attraction which would use
the very houses that they occupy.
This tourist project, supported by the province
of Chubut, involves reactivating the disused train lines for a guided
train tour of Patagonia. Although provincial officials deny that
the project has any relationship with Benetton, one of the highlights
will be a trip through the picturesque landscape they now own. The
official description of the tourist project describes 'a true trip
through the regions origins, leaving from El Maiten heading towards
Leleque. There you will visit the Museum Leleque, where one can
enjoy a Patagonian asado [typical Argentinian food] at the Benetton
ranch.' To make room for all this authenticity, a school for 18
pupils in Leleque will also be shut down.
Meanwhile, the state is promising to rehouse
the evicted residents. Miguel Mateo, spokesperson for the Ferrocarril
Provincial del Chubut (Provincial Railroad Company of Chubut), presents
the process as a simple relocation: 'I don't like to use the word
eviction, it implies that the people are being thrown out into the
street.' But given the state's previous record, even this is not
Unconvinced by the rhetoric, the residents
of Leleque have begun to organise. They point out that other local
communities in Mapuche territory, such as the people of Nahuelpan,
have been allowed to remain on their land, integrated into the tourist
enterprises that use their train stations. The difference, they
say, is that the other stations are not surrounded by Benetton lands.
Mute issue 27 (winter/Spring 2004
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