Benetton in trouble over evicted Patagonian couple
Hannah Baldock in Buenos Aires - Sunday July 18, 2004
Italian fashion giant Benetton, a global empire selling conservative fashions with the help of taboo-busting adverts boasting of the peoples of the world united under its brand, has seen its credibility threatened by the ancestral land claims of a family of South American Indians. The dispute is over a plot of land settled by a Mapuche Indian family in Argentinian Patagonia, where the Benetton group grazes sheep on huge landholdings totalling 2.2 million acres.
Benetton recently won a legal case to evict Rosa Nahuelquir, 50, and Atilio Curiñanco, 52. The impoverished couple had wanted to farm a corner of a vast Benetton estate in Chubut province.
The couple last week made the trip from a wet Patagonian winter to the warmth of the Argentinian lower house of Congress and won sympathy from its packed public auditorium. Their fight has now become a rallying cry for the disputed land rights of Argentina's indigenous peoples - and ruffled Benetton's image of politically correct cosmopolitan cool.
The land dispute between Benetton and the Mapuche family began during Argentina's devastating economic crisis in 2002 when Rosa Nahuelquir lost her job in a textile company in Esquel. The mother of six had worked 12 hours a day for 16 years at the firm, for 80 centavos (15p) an hour. Her husband Atilio's 300 peso (£60) a month salary at a meat factory was not enough to support the family, so they decided to return to the life of their ancestors - subsistence farming.
They set their sights on a 385-hectacre plot in Santa Rosa, in the Patagonian wilderness, a few kilometres from the Estancia Leleque, a Benetton property. The couple enquired in February 2002 about the status of the long-empty land at Santa Rosa, at the Instituto Autarquico de Colonización, an agency charged with allocating state land. They were told it was zoned for commercial use and intended to be 'reserved for a micro-enterprise', the couple told the authorities they were going to work the land.
Five days later the manager of Benetton's Leleque Estate denounced them in the provincial courts, saying the land was earmarked for tree planting by Compañía Tierras del Sud, a timber-producing Benetton subsidiary.
Two months later 12 armed police with dogs evicted Rosa and Atilio from their tin-roofed house, forcing them to leave behind goats, chickens and crops of potatoes, onions and garlic.
'It is hard to understand. They gave the land to Benetton, who are in Italy. They destroyed everything we had done, everything we sowed, our little house. Benetton razed everything with a machine. We hadn't harmed the land, on the contrary we had done it good,' said Atilio.