Argentina’s Bicentennial: Another Take

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• The indigenous have little to celebrate

“Los pueblos originarios están acá; están presente,” an indigenous woman shouted to the camera of Argentina’s Canal 7 news program on May 18th. She was surrounded by fellow protestors from across Argentina. In a period of eight days this group had marched to Buenos Aires in an event called the “Marcha de los pueblos originarios; Camino por la verdad, hacia un estado plurinacional” (March of Native Peoples; Walk for truth towards a plurinational state).

Argentina’s indigenous have used the nation’s bicentennial celebration to raise their visibility and address issues facing their community. On May 24th and 25th, indigenous nations as well as non-indigenous supporters from around the country held an event outside the Congressional Palace called El Otro Bicentenario (The Other Bicentennial). This consisted of speeches, panels, and music promoting indigenous rights and demands. The bicentennial, native peoples say, is not a time “to celebrate [Argentina’s freedom from colonialism], but to reflect on past and present colonial policies.” To the country’s indigenous, independence marks the beginning of the state expansionism that destroyed their culture, their way of life, and often their people in some form of travail. From their perspective, it signifies the genocide of native peoples and the theft of their land. Today, the indigenous remain stigmatized outsiders from Argentine society who receive inadequate federal aid and even less concern. Additionally, they have had to face eviction from their traditional lands through some form of ruse at the hands of various state and transnational forces. As El Otro Bicentenario states, no hay nada que festejar, y todo que hacer (There is nothing to celebrate, and everything to do).

Argentine Independence and Expansionism

At the time of the first Spanish contact in 1502, Argentina was home to dozens of indigenous tribes and languages. Archaeological data confirms settlement in Patagonia as far back as 11,000 BC. When the Spanish presence was finally consolidated by the 18th century, the region was occupied by the many semi-nomadic tribes dwelling on the Pampas and throughout Patagonia, with the larger Mapuche nation lying to the west. As Spanish interests lay mainly in the silver mines of Peru, development in Argentina was centered at Rio de La Plata, with Buenos Aires serving as a significant Atlantic port. The colonial economy of Buenos Aires relied heavily on exports from the Potosí silver mines, and interactions with native groups occurred mostly in the area surrounding the city. Although the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata maintained regular contact with Santiago, Chile, much of the country below this line of communication remained untouched by European settlement.

After Argentina officially gained independence in 1816, economic reliance on Peruvian silver decreased as Argentina became a leading producer and exporter of beef and wool. This growing agricultural sector soon required more land, and the state did not hesitate to use military forces to move into the interior where they first displaced and eventually killed several thousands of native peoples in a rush to clean the land. Perhaps the most famous of these campaigns was the violent Conquest of the Desert, led by General Julio Argentino Roca in the late 1870s. Moving southwest from Buenos Aires into Patagonian territory, Roca promoted a plan of subjugation and extermination of the southern indigenous groups. This included the forced expropriation of native lands in order to open the area to European settlers. The campaign left over 1300 native peoples dead; survivors faced expulsion, mandatory labor, evangelization, and/or forced integration into Argentine society.

Many indigenous view these violent events as a genocide committed against them by the Argentine state. Roca’s campaign has caused many Argentines to believe that their country’s indigenous community was in effect exterminated during the 1800s, contributing to the common belief that in Argentina there are not Indians. This is what Mónica Quijada, researcher at the Historical Institute in Madrid, calls the “invisibilization” of indigenous elements in Argentina, and this phenomenon has made it difficult for communities to effectively mobilize and campaign for public awareness and, eventually, redress.

Argentina commemorates Roca’s campaign both on the hundred-peso bill and with a large monument of the general in downtown Buenos Aires. This coming year, the statue will be replaced by a 10-meter monument that honors the country’s indigenous. The monument’s artists say it is “a historic reparation,” rewriting Argentina’s tumultuous past to include the voices of those who have been cruelly silenced.

National Recognition of the Indigenous Has Yet to Become Reality

Only in the past few decades has Argentina enacted legislation to protect both the human rights and territorial rights of the indigenous people. Sadly, these laws are often lightly dismissed by both the state and the international community, and little opportunity for redress is made available to indigenous peoples when violations do occur. After experiencing extreme repression and isolation for centuries, the indigenous did not achieve legal status until 1983. The following year, the government created the “Indigenous Policy and Support to the Aboriginal Communities” (Law 23.302), which seeks to restore traditional land to indigenous groups and create programs for bilingual education. Unfortunately, this legislation received grossly inadequate funding and little support for its implementation. It also has been bitterly criticized by indigenous communities because they had little influence in the drafting of the measure or its subsequent acceptance.

Argentina ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 in 1992. This measure (24.071) ensured the rights to ownership of traditional land, as well as access to land used by the indigenous for economic purposes. More substantially, in 1994, Argentina reformed the National Constitution to include various amendments that increased the protection of individual and group rights within the country. Among these was Article 75, Section 17, which formally recognized the preexistence of indigenous people in Argentina and gave limited legal autonomy to their communities. More recently, the government has created a new program to help disseminate information regarding indigenous rights, and in 2006, it placed a four-year moratorium on all land evictions of native groups.

Although Argentina has attempted to defend indigenous rights, native peoples continue to live in substandard conditions. Many of the legal actions mentioned above are inadequately funded and barely implemented; therefore, native communities rarely receive the benefits promised. According to Rights and Democracy’s Report on Indigenous Women in America, “provinces [in Argentina] where indigenous people are a majority demonstrate the highest poverty rates in the country.” The highest concentration of indigenous groups is in the north and central-west provinces of the country, encompassing Jujuy, Salta, Chacho and the surrounding area. Indigenous communities also experience higher rates of illiteracy and lower rates of higher education than the rest of the country.

Even beyond substandard living conditions, indigenous people face daily discrimination by a predominately white nation. During the mid 19th century, Argentina sought to attract European immigration that would “civilize” the country. From 1875 to 1930, Argentina had the second largest influx of immigrants in the Americas, after the U.S. Former President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s works, such as “Civilización y Barbarie,” captured the zeitgeist of the nation as dependent on European influence and migration in order to overpower the native, or gaucho, presence to be found in the interior. Thus, native voices were never included in the building of national identity, ensuring that the indigenous remained a marginalized and stigmatized group in the country. For instance, an Argentine colloquialism “hablar como un indio” (to talk like an Indian) means to do something stupid.

The question of land: Multinational Corporations and Argentina’s Agro Industry

Although new Argentine law represents a conscious effort to support and defend indigenous rights, there continues to be illegal land expropriation by multinational corporations and government officials working in cahoots with the country’s agro industry. As Argentina’s soy industry expands and international companies seek profitable minerals and land, indigenous communities are increasingly threatened expulsion. According to an investigation by the Argentine newspaper Página/12, in 2007, at least 8.6 million hectares were contested between
indigenous groups and multinational mining companies, provincial and national governments, multimillionaires, tourist companies, soy industries, and various other actors. As Argentina-based reporter, Marie Trigona, stated in an interview with COHA, little has been done by regional governments to defend indigenous communities: “Laws exist but local governments do not respect them or enforce them and tend to turn a blind eye to private corporations violating indigenous rights.”

Mining companies such as Yamana Gold continually threaten communities with displacement and environmental degradation. Recently, Amnesty International Argentina reported on the building of a canal in the province of Formosa, a failed undertaking that flooded almost half of the official territory of the Pilagá indigenous group. In 2006, local authorities forcibly evicted indigenous families in Santiago del Estero from traditional land at the request of soy growers, in blatant disregard of the months-old moratorium.
In Patagonia, the Mapuche nation has had extensive land conflicts with Benneton, an Italian wool company that is currently the largest landowner in Argentina. They have also faced battles against the Spanish oil company Repsol over water contamination due to oil leakage.

Increasingly, land in Patagonia is being bought by rich foreigners, a trend that some call the “foreignization” of Argentine land. For example, Ted Turner, the famous American media tycoon, owns over 55,000 hectares, while Douglas and Kris Tompkins, founders of Esprit, Northface, and Patagonia have bought over 800,000 hectares in Chile and Argentina. This remains a national debate; while some of these entrepreneurs seek to create environmental preserves, privatization of land denies free access to natural sights, including those of indigenous importance. Although in almost all of the above situations indigenous groups have sought legal redress, little has been done to amend their grievances.

Furthermore, Argentina’s agroindustry has had a devastating impact on the country’s indigenous. The expanding soy and sugar industries in northwest Argentina have caused deforestation, unemployment, and land eviction. Logging operations have deforested large swaths of the region, which has created pollution, spread diseases and contributed to natural disasters. Deforestation helps to produce rising temperatures and an increasing presence of mosquitoes, which was a main cause of the 2004 dengue outbreak in northwest Argentina. Furthermore, the use of agrochemicals has had health consequences for surrounding areas.

Many indigenous face evictions because they do not hold legal titles to traditional land. According to a recent report by human rights and environmental groups such as CAPOMA and La Soja Mata, “the province of Salta is home to over one third of Argentina’s indigenous communities, with 70% having no land titles.” Recent legislature assures rights to traditional land. However, without active governmental protection of indigenous groups, many will be faced with forced eviction and further impoverishment.

Even if they are not directly evicted, indigenous and small-scale farmers face other threats from growing agribusiness. Today’s agro industries propagate land concentration, as the cost of transport prohibits many small-size operations from competing in the field. According to La Soja Mata, in the year 2000, 95,000 hectares in Salta were in the hands of 19 farm operations. Also, increasing technological modernization in agro industries reduces the number of jobs available; thus, many subsistence farmers who formerly supplemented their income with salaries from large-scale operations are now forced to look elsewhere, and many migrate to nearby cities looking for work.

Argentina’s Bicentennial

For many Argentines, the bicentennial marks a time for celebration, but it also offers an opportunity for reflection and reform. As the state seeks to promote programs for social justice, economic prosperity, human rights, and the strengthening of democracy, now is the time for those voices that habitually have gone unheard to be included in a national dialogue. The bicentennial is a reflection on identity, and as Argentines look to their past for answers, it is also a chance to incorporate all segments of the country’s silenced history.

This is what the 8,000 indigenous who marched to Buenos Aires sought to do. In the largest indigenous movement ever to be staged in Argentina, various groups have united to seek territorial, environmental, economical, cultural, and educational reparations from the state. Over thirty indigenous groups have formulated concrete demands for each of the above categories. Territorially, indigenous groups seek the acknowledgement and restitution of traditional lands, various juridical reforms, and the proper enforcement of the land eviction moratorium of 2006. Environmentally, the indigenous are trying to nationally protect the glaciers of Patagonia and place much more stringent regulations on mining, soy cultivation and land-leveling policies. To gain economic reparation, some groups seek to create a special permanent fund to ensure implementation of beneficial programs in indigenous communities. Finally, in terms of education and cultural recognition, such groups are demanding that indigenous languages are recognized as official languages of Argentina, that educational pathways are formed that integrate indigenous history and traditions, that indigenous universities are created, and that October 12th, a national holiday, be replaced by various indigenous celebrations. Throughout the Americas October 12th is recognized either as Columbus Day or “Dia de la Raza,” and for indigenous groups, it charts the beginning of their destruction.

El Otro Bicentenario as an example for the future

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner met with indigenous representatives at the Casa Rosada upon their arrival in Buenos Aires. She promised to put these demands on the agenda for the beginning of June, and many remain hopeful that at least some of them will be addressed. But for others, they doubt that the interests of indigenous communities will be a counterweight to those of Argentina’s industries. Still, the event marks the creation of a united indigenous movement and has raised visibility both within and outside the country. As many other South American countries celebrate their bicentennials in the coming years, it may be beneficial for indigenous communities elsewhere to look towards the example of Argentina’s otro bicentenario to obtain precedent for their own required causes. No country in the Americas can celebrate their independence without realizing the cost paid by its indigenous peoples. As the indigenous movement’s slogan indicates, the bicentennial is a time to take action and embrace change, especially concerning the native communities of the hemisphere.