Argentina celebrates the bicentennial of a revolution that paved the road to independence from Spain with the nation’s capital transformed into a gala event. But not everyone is celebrating. The nation’s indigenous people are calling attention to a legacy of invasion and displacement that continues to this day. As bicentennial events commenced, indigenous groups led a caravan to the nation’s capital to demand recognition of their sovereign culture and plurality, in one of the largest indigenous demonstrations in Argentina’s history.
Argentina is celebrating the bicentennial of a revolution that paved the road to independence from Spain with the nation’s capital transformed into a gala event. But not everyone is celebrating. The nation’s indigenous people are calling attention to a legacy of invasion and displacement that continues to this day.
Nothing to celebrate
As bicentennial events commenced, indigenous groups led a caravan to the nation’s capital to demand recognition of their sovereign culture and plurality, in one of the largest indigenous demonstrations in Argentina’s history. During the march thousands commemorated the nation’s non-colonial history.
Santiago de la Casa, a Pilagá community member traveled from the province of Formosa to push for a law to recognize indigenous cultures, languages and territory. “We can’t be happy and celebrate the nation’s past 200 years as indigenous people. The indigenous people already existed here. The other, the Europeans who came here 200 years ago can celebrate. They can be happy because they have benefited from the waters, rivers, air, earth apt to produce. We are sad because we don’t have a specific law for the aboriginal people.”
The Pilagá community has faced environmental devastation and water pollution due to the construction of public water works project which has flooded indigenous ancestral lands. Amnesty International published a report on the “systematic violation of human rights.” The Pilagá community numbering around 6,000 inhabits the bordering lands of the La Estrella wetlands. The indigenous have faced constant repression from security forces and threats, in addition to the degradation of living standards due to the pollution of the wetlands. The Pilagá face food shortages and risk losing their traditional ways of life, such as hunting and fishing which they have depended on for centuries.
More than 30 indigenous nations have survived the mass immigration of Europeans to Argentina. However, the nation’s early leaders led campaigns such as the “conquest of the desert,” to wipe out indigenous communities in the Patagonia south to make room for white inhabitants. General Julio Argentino Roca led this campaign in which “30 million hectares were stolen from the indigenous and distributed among the nation’s most wealthy under what is called the campaign of the desert,” said Anarchist Historian Osvaldo Bayer.
Lestuaro Newen is from the Mapuche confederation in Neuquen, one of the communities attacked in the campaign to dominate Patagonia in the 1870’s. “An essential component of the change that needs to take place in Argentina and in Latin America is that history tends to be manipulated and tries to legitimize the genocide that took place. And that history recognizes that there were pre-existing communities and that the colonialists tried to exterminate indigenous people which constitutes genocide. Our communities have a lot to contribute to history, not only the past but the future and we have hope history will change.”
The lands stolen during the Campaign of the Desert were handed over to the nation’s oligarchy. One such beneficiary to the genocide of the Patagonian indigenous includes the Great Grandfather of Jose Martinez de Hoz, the former economy minister during the dictatorship and architecht of the neoliberal economic model for which the military junta needed to carry out another genocide campaign to implement and disappear 30,000 activists during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
200 years after the supposed end to colonial rule, indigenous territory continues to be invaded by foreign economic interests. One of the largest landholders in the Patagonia, includes the Italian company Benetton which owns 2.2 million acres of land. Benetton has lead a campaign to evict families from the land which their families lived centuries ago. “Our demands include that they recognize our people, territory and our rights to natural resources,” says Newen. He adds, ““The provincial governments carries out policies that allow natural resources to be bought and sold, for lands that Mapuches have occupied for decades to be sold with the communities on the lands, and that our people along with the people from the province are being polluted from the extraction of natural resources such as petrol and mining.”
Indigenous communities have faced not only displacement but poverty and health problems due to the environmental devastation of their land by industrial agriculture, mining and dam projects. One indigenous representative from the Amayra –Quecha Andean region, Guayma Huamca, said that the Pachamama, or Mother Earth desperately needs equilibrium and harmony.
“Our leaders have been dismembered and tortured during the nation’s history. To squash our consciousness and rights our communities have been terrorized so that we never raise our voices again. Years go by and centuries have passed, and the Pachamama is boiling with grief, and is crying for help.”
Festivities for the May 25 independence revolution concluded, and millions have visited the art exhibits, food stalls, and didactic historic displays line the Buenos Aires major avenues. President Cristina Kirchner met a delegation of indigenous representatives. Only one law has been passed in 2006 to protect indigenous lands, and only a handful of provinces recognize the pre-existence of indigenous cultures, languages and sovereignty over territory.
However, for the 8,000 indigenous who marched to the city, the May 25 bicentennial struck a deep chord for communities that face discrimination in the present and forget of the past. Throughout the city, the cries of “the stolen land will be recuperated,” the mourning of the Pachamama and the tears of genocide of indigenous peoples echoed as the nation celebrated its bicentennial.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and translator based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog www.mujereslibres.blogspot.com