Benetton wins, the Mapuche people lose

IPS - Buenos Aires, 1st June 2004

'The law is for the 'huincas' (white Argentinians). For us, there is still no democracy', Mauro Millán, a leader from the Mapuche-Tehuelche Community Organisation 11th October, said to Inter Press Service (IPS). Millan’s statement came after the legal ruling which saw 300 hectares of land taken away from a Mapuche family and returned to the Italian corporation Benetton.

By Marcela Valente

On Monday evening, a judge in the southern province of Chubut made a legal ruling against Atilio Curinanco and Rosa Rua Nahuelquir, a Mapuche couple who in 2002 occupied the land with their four children.

According to the ruling, the indigenous couple must give up the land because it belongs to the Southern Argentinian Land Company, which owns 970.000 hectares of land in the area and is controlled by the Italian clothing corporation Benetton.

The Mapuche family had put in an application to the Independent Institute of Land Settlement, Instituto Autárquico de Colonización, (IAC) in Chabut, to take up residence on land without existing title deeds in the area where their ancestors had lived. After six months of waiting for the application process to be completed, and having received no formal reply, they occupied the land: they ploughed and sowed the land, repaired fences, began to raise livestock and built basic living quarters.

According to Mister Curinanco, the family presented its plans in writing to the IAC, who then 'orally' authorised them to set up home on the land in August 2002.

However, two months later, dozens of police officers armed and with dogs, suddenly appeared in the area, in Leleque, and evicted the family. They claimed the land was part of a farm owned by the Benetton Corporation.

The Benetton Corporation took the family to court for resisting eviction and initiated further proceedings against them with the purpose of settling the question of ownership of the land. Mr and Mrs Curinanco-Rua Nahualquir rejected the corporation's attempts to settle the matter out of court.

Although the charge of resisting eviction was dismissed, the court's ruling on ownership of the land went against the family.

A spokesman for Benetton, Alberto Mazzuchelli, said: 'National and local government will now have to address the housing problems of the Mapuche community'. He added:'As a business, what we provide is jobs'.

The case had awakened expectations. It was seen as a test of the indigenous rights enshrined in regional legislation and in the Constitution of this country of 37 million inhabitants of which, according to unofficial estimates, between 800,000 and 2 million are indigenous.

The Constitution states that the Mapuche are guaranteed 'possession and ownership of the lands which they traditionally occupied'. It further states that 'none (of these lands) shall be transferable.'

But the legal system has endorsed the violent eviction of the Mapuche family, in the course of which they were imprisoned and their work tools - a plough and a team of oxen - seized.

In addition, the legal system has now handed Benetton 'permanent ownership' of land. This ruling is based on a land register dating from 1896, when the Mapuche in this area of the country resisted a military campaign known as the 'conquest of the desert'.

During that campaign thousands of indigenous people lost their lives at the hands of the army. In the course of taking over the land, the army distributed it to individuals for their own use.

In 1896, in the middle of this campaign of conquest, the government 'presented' those same 970.000 hectares of land, which Benetton has controlled since 1991, to the Southern Argentinian Land Company - a company of British origin.

The Southern Argentinian Land Company was created at the same time as the land was transferred to it by the government. The Mapuche therefore believe that the transfer should be investigated by the National Legislature.

'In the 19th Century Argentina opened itself up to foreign immigrants, but we, the indigenous population, were exterminated. For this reason, the land in the interior in Patagonia, with all our communities living on it, was given to the English', Millàn points out.

The indigenous leader is referring to the preponderance of landowners of British origin in this southern area of the country; an area rich in oil and natural gas and where there are many sheep farms.

Millàn was hoping for a legal ruling in favour of the Mapuche family, one which would have enabled the return to their lands of thousands of indigenous people who have been displaced to the big Patagonian cities in search of work.

But this has not happened, because, he says: 'the justice system and the law belong to the Huincas (Argentinians)'.

Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th Century, the Mapuche (which in their language means 'People of the Land’)lived in the southern regions of what are today Argentina and Chile.

One and a half million Mapuche live in Chile. In Argentina there are 200.000 and, according to a study by the Catholic National Organisation for Indigenous Support (Equipo Nacional de Pastoral Aborigen), 94% of these do not own the title deeds to their land.

'The Mapuche communities in Argentina were driven into a corner and pushed into living on the worst land; the driest and most inhospitable. They were only allowed to occupy land without title deeds, and, contrary to regional laws, were not helped to complete the procedures for gaining permanent ownership of the land', Gustavo Macayo, lawyer and backer of the Curinanco-Rua Nahuelquir family, explained to IPS.

In another case, Macayo managed to indict a judge who had authorised evictions for failure to properly discharge his duties. At the trial, Judge Eduardo Colabelli was struck off for what the court described as frequent racist rulings and a total ignorance of the law.

It was while he was still an acting judge that Colabelli ordered the eviction of Curinanco and his family.

'Looking beyond this negative result, there remains an essential question which still has to be addressed. A full investigation must take place into this transfer of land, which concerns an area equivalent to nearly a fifth of the province of Chubut', says Macayo, who is defending Mapuche and Tehuelche people in several disputes concerning land, discrimination and employment.

'The majority of Mapuche live crowded together in urban ghettos in the cities of Esquel, Comodoro, Rivadivia or El Maitèn, and are the victims of constant evictions, in many cases accompanied by violence', explained the lawyer.

'However, the state never takes any action. It shows an absolute apathy, which leaves the field open for the big landowners to go on expanding their territory', he added.

The problem has been in existence for more than a century and Mauro Millán predicts it is set to continue as a result of the indigenous population's uncertain legal position with regard to their land. His grandparents, he recalls, were evicted from communal land and his parents were employed on a hacienda (large farm) belonging to the Southern Argentinian Land Company.

'Our people are only allowed to occupy lands without owning the title deeds. Deeds are for those who have recently arrived, be they Italians, Germans or Swiss. But we, who have always lived on this land, we do not have this right', the Mapuche leader emphasised.

Millán was prosecuted for protesting against the evictions. In his opinion the state only intervenes in order to strip indigenous people of their rights, using the police and the justice system to do so.

'I always ask myself: what is it that happens when a Mapuche family decides to exercise their right to return to their land and their traditional way of life? It seems we do not have the freedom to do this. There is a lot of talk about democracy and human rights, but for us, for indigenous peoples, that time has still not come', laments Millán.


Translated by Heidi Walter

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