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ARGENTINA
The Mapuche vs. Benetton, the conflict lingers on
Fernanda Sández
4/10/2017
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The recovery of their ancestral land means a “return home” for the Mapuche community.

In Mapudungun, the language spoken by the Mapuche who ancestrally occupied the southern end of America, there is only one verb that makes reference to the action of leaving, the same as the action of returning: amutun. And there is probably nothing accidental in that, because these original people — who never completely abandoned the land that the colonizers took from them more than 100 years ago — participate every so often in making a new claim.

The most recent of these events took place in the Mapuche community of Pu-Lof in the early hours of Jan. 10, when some 200 armed members of the militarized police of the province of Chubut, in the heart of Patagonia, showed up in the isolated region of Vuelta del Río,  locality of Cushamen. The police force were carrying out orders from Federal Judge Guido Otranto to evict a small group of native families, settled in the middle of the Patagonia steppe since Mar. 2015, who were looking to recover this territory that since 1994 has been in control of Italian businessman Luciano Benetton, the majority shareholder of Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino.

Since their arrival two years ago, the Mapuche settlement — self-called Pu-Lof en Resistencia Vuelta del Río — has been in conflict with a provincial government that does not want an indigenous settlement there. The Pu-Lof community does not speak about “intrusion” or “occupation”, but of a return home, because what it promotes is the self-recognition of all Mapuche as such,  and then move on to the recovery of the territory.

According to Sonia Ivanoff, defense attorney of the Mapuche, “to find the root of this conflict we have to look to the end of the 19th century, when oligarchic sectors decided to incorporate territories traditionally occupied by indigenous populations to the newly born state. The Chubut was given to English companies in exchange for a loan in sterling pounds. As we say here, lands were given away with the indigenous inside and this is the situation that the Lof [Mapuche social organization] wants to vindicate, not only for the rights that today are recognized to the indigenous peoples, but also because today the Mapuche and the Tehuelche live in the worst conditions. For this reason, since Mar. 2015, several Mapuche families decided to vindicate part of this territory that once rightfully belonged to them, the territory that was stripped from them, to then be handed over to the English company and to finally be purchased by the Benetton brothers.”

Despite successive and often violent eviction attempts, the group has remained in the land and have hang banners proclaiming “Mapuche Territory” and “Get out Benetton!”

Experienced repression
“The operation was carried out by the militarized police, with a personnel truck, a water bomber, a drone, and more than 200 police members,” tells Attorney Carlos María González Quintana to Latinamerica Press, who is a member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Córdoba, and who was at the place during the police assault in January. The pretext used for such a show of force was to put an end to the blockade of the old train line known as “La Trochita”, now turned into a touristic train.

According to González Quintana, “there are only 18 people living in Pu-Lof, among which are four women and nine children.”

The Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC), which groups together social organizations from throughout the country, issued a statement denouncing that in the 10 hours the police members remained in the place the indigenous people “were totally isolated and no respect for human rights existed due the violent way they proceeded” and they were subjected to “highly racist and degrading treatment.”

The following day, things got a lot stranger and at nearly 8:00 pm, according to witness accounts, a pickup showed up carrying members of the military police.

“The voice of the person in command of the uniformed members was heard telling them: ‘Shoot, shoot, we have to kill one’,” the UAC reports.

Also, the police members tore down the ruca (communal house) where only women, old women and children were present at the time. They also fired shots leaving two Mapuche seriously injured. Seven settlers were arrested and kept isolated.

Faced with these occurrences, the reaction from organizations did not wait. The National Team of Indigenous Pastoral, a catholic ecclesiastic group, maintained that the repression had prioritized “the interests of foreigners over those of the indigenous populations, preexisting to the Argentinean state, and we lament the suffering generated towards so many members of the Mapuche population with whom we offer our solidarity. The respect for the rights of the indigenous populations will not be achieved by criminalizing their claims.”

Also expressing their criticism were Amnesty International, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and several deputies and senators who were shocked by the disproportionate harshness of the repression.

“They broke the finger to a woman, several children were beaten and the repressive forces took the animals of the community with them; a cow and its two calves [the cow and one of the calves later died], besides the horses. This was a clear attempt to isolate and repress them, being that there is no phone service or radio in the area, and the Mapuche only have their horses to mobilize,” González Quintana explains.

They also destroyed the community vegetable garden and the crops, leaving them without the crops that they depended on to survive.

By fire and sword
The local authorities have tried to have the members of the Pu-Lof Mapuche community catalogued as “terrorists”, something the justice system itself ruled against last year. However, and not just as a coincidence, the authorities raised again the specter of terrorism. Newspapers in Argentina, instead of reporting on the repression endured by the Mapuche from members of the security forces, put the emphasis on Mapuche activist Facundo Jones Huala, a 31 years old young man born in Argentina and with criminal proceedings pending against him in Chile for starting forest fires and for other minor crimes.

“Facundo Jones Huala, a violent Mapuche who declared war on Argentina and Chile,” headlined the Clarín newspaper.

Jones Huala presents himself as part of a group of indigenous vindication called Mapuche Ancestral Resistance (RAM) that highlights the rights over the land from where they were expelled more than a century ago. It also promotes the recovery of the cultural traditions and the union of what they call “the Mapuche Nation peoples”. Many descendants from the original peoples who until recently survived in the suburbs of the Patagonian cities have echoed that call. 

This is maybe due to, as it was well put by the  National Team of Indigenous Pastoral, “no order can be imposed by fire and sword based on injustice, dispossession and the denial of rights of the indigenous peoples. Violence and repression coming from the state can only generate more injustice and less social peace.”

The Argentinean state was denounced before the Inter American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) for this latest brutal action. Three months after the events, calm has returned to Pu-Lof en Resistencia Vuelta del Río, but it remains to know for how long. —Latinamerica Press.


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Mapuche people get organized to watch over in the Pu-Lof en Resistencia Vuelta del Río community. / Carlos María González Quintana
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