BUENOS AIRES – The territorial claims of hundreds of indigenous communities, which extend throughout most of Argentina’s vast geography, burst onto the public agenda of a country built by and for descendants of European colonisers and immigrants, accustomed to looking at native people as outsiders.
It all started with the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old artisan who on Aug. 1 participated in a protest in the southern Patagonian province of Chubut by Mapuche indigenous people, who were violently evicted by security forces. Since then, there has been no news of his whereabouts.
This mobilized broad sectors of society, and brought out of the shadows a conflict that in recent years has flared up into violence on many occasions, but which historically has been given little attention.
“I hope the sad incident involving Santiago Maldonado will help Argentina understand that it is necessary and possible to find legal and political solutions for theindigenous question,” said Gabriel Seghezzo, director of the Foundation for Development in Justice and Peace (Fundapaz).
“It is imperative to work to defuse conflicts, because otherwise, the violence will continue,” added the head of Fundapaz, an organization that works to improve the living conditions of communities living in the Argentine portion of the Chaco, a vast subtropical forest that extends to Paraguay and Bolivia.
Fundapaz was one of the organisations that worked for more than 20 years on a territorial claim of rural lands in the northwestern province of Salta, which ended in 2014, when the local government transferred ownership of 643,000 hectares to the families that lived there.
Communal ownership of over 400,000 hectares was recognised for members of the Wichi, Toba, Tapiete, Chulupí and Chorote indigenous peoples, while the rest was granted in joint ownership to 463 non-indigenous peasant families.
The case, however, was merely one happy exception, since the vast majority of the country’s indigenous communities still do not have title to their lands.
Ten years ago, the government launched the National Programme for the Survey of Indigenous Territories, in which 1,532 communities were registered. To date, only 423 of them have been surveyed, although they do not yet have title deeds, while there are another 401 in process.
According to the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI), these 824 communities are demanding that 8,414,124 hectares be recognised as their ancestral lands. That is bigger than several countries in the continent, such as Panama or Costa Rica, but it is only about three percent of the 2,780,400 square km of the Argentine territory.
In the remaining communities, the survey has not even started.
This means the constitution, which recognises “the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous peoples” and guarantees not only “respect for their identity and the right to a bilingual and intercultural education”, but also “the communal possession and ownership of the lands they traditionally occupy,” is not being fulfilled.
These principles were incorporated in the constitution during the latest reform, in 1994, and marked a tremendous paradigm shift for a nation that has historically seen native people as an alien element, to be controlled.
In fact, up to 1994, Argentina’s laws actually instructed the authorities to “preserve the peaceful treatment of Indians and promote their conversion to Catholicism.”
However, the extraordinary progress on paper seems to have brought few concrete improvements for native people, whose proportion in the Argentine population is difficult to establish.
In the last National Census in 2010, 955,032 people identified themselves as belonging to or descended from an indigenous group, which represented 2.38 percent of the total population at that time of 40,117,096.
But the number of indigenous people is believed to be higher, since many people are reluctant to acknowledge indigenous roots, due to the historical discrimination and stigma that native people have suffered. The largest indigenous groups are the Mapuche in the south, the Tobas in the Chaco region, and the Guarani in the northeast.
“Since the constitutional reform that recognised indigenous peoples’ rights, we have had 23 years of absolute failure of public policies to solve the indigenous question. There has been a terrible postponement of the issue by all government administrations in this period,” said Raúl Ferreyra, a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Buenos Aires.
For Ferreyra, “land disputes have clear roots in the uncontrolled advance of soy monoculture in the north of the country, and the passage to foreign hands of vast swathes of land in the south.”
“What we need is dialogue, but there is a lack of will and of tools,” he told IPS.
What happened with the land question is a good example of the gap between rules and reality.
In November 2006, the national Congress passed Law 26,160 on Indigenous Communities, which declared an “emergency with regard to the possession and ownership of indigenous territories” for four years.
During that period, which was to be used to determine which are the ancestral lands of the communities, as a preliminary step to the granting of title deeds, evictions were banned, even if a court order existed.
However, little progress was made on the survey, despite the fact that Congress voted for an extension of the original term of four years twice, for a total of 11 years.
The latest extension expires in November and dozens of social organisations across the country have called for its renewal until 2021, while Congress will begin debating the fate of the law on Sept. 27.
The demand was backed by hundreds of intellectuals, in a public letter in which they pointed out that “in Argentina, the recognition of indigenous peoples’ collective rights over their ancestral territories is increasingly irreconcilable with the expansion of profitable lands for capital.”
According to a study by global rights watchdog Amnesty International, there are 225 conflicts in the country involving indigenous communities, nearly all of them over land.
In 24 of them there were acts of violence with the intervention of the security forces, and even deaths. One case was the 2009 murder of Javier Chocobar, the leader of a Diaguitacommunityin the northwestern province of Tucumán, which is still unsolved.
“In all these years, many judges have continued to order evictions of indigenous communities despite the law prohibiting it. That is why we believe that if the emergency is not extended, the situation will get worse, “explained BelénLeguizamón, coordinator of the Indigenous Rights area of the Lawyers Association for Human Rights and Social Studies in Northwest Argentina (ANDHES).
In her view, “the law is an umbrella with holes, but an umbrella nonetheless.”
“The survey of Argentina’s indigenous territories should already have been completed, and today we should be studying the granting of title deeds on lands. We have to work against the strong discrimination that not only exists on the part of authorities and the mainstream media, but also among some sectors of society,” Leguizamón told IPS.
As an example, she noted that “schools in Argentina still teach that indigenous people belong to a past that no longer exists.”–IPS