Historic Convergence at Meeting of Indigenous Peoples of Argentina

A wave of violent evictions of Argentinean indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for multi-national corporations, combined with over a century of discrimination and disregard for their constitutional rights, lead to an unprecedented event: The First National Meeting of Indigenous Nations and Peoples of Argentina. For the first time, the original inhabitants of Argentina held a National Meeting to unite their struggles and say "Enough!"

The center of the city of Rosario located a few hours north of Buenos Aires is awash with gleaming apartment blocks which overlook the Rio Parana and a water front lined with imposing statues and monuments commemorating the foundation of the Republic of Argentina. A few kilometres west of the centre lies Barrio Toba, a neighbourhood which stands as a stark reminder that the foundation of the Republic of Argentina has not been something to be commemorated by all, not least by the 20 or more indigenous peoples and nations who were its original inhabitants and who today, represent 2% of the population.

Barrio Toba, named after the indigenous group who make up the majority of its residents, is in many ways a poignant symbol of the situation of the original inhabitants of Argentina today. While article 75.17 of the National Constitution fully recognises the rights of the original inhabitants to land, the management of natural resources and bilingual education amongst others, since the foundation of the Republic of Argentina up until today, this article has been consistently and brutally violated.

In 1878, only 60 years after independence and despite the important role they had played in the struggle to overthrow the colonial regime, the Government declared war against the original inhabitants. Thousands were massacred or enslaved and thousands more were displaced to allow for the expansion of the meat exportation industries. The mastermind of this war, General Rocas, is today commemorated as a national hero on the 100 peso bank note.

Over a century later, little has changed. As the current Government moves forward with an aggressive expansion of the nation’s agricultural frontiers and a mass sale of land to multinational companies, the original inhabitants continue to be displaced. And as environmental devastation is making arable land more and more scarce, they are being forced from the ancestral land which forms the core of their culture and beliefs, to migrate to urban areas where they live in impoverished neighbourhoods such as Barrio Toba.

Barrio Toba, however, refuses to be a poignant place. In fact, like many of the new social movements which emerged in Argentina during the economic crisis of 2001, it has become an important centre of resistance, unity and reflexion on the movement of indigenous peoples in particular. Without a legal title to their land, in 2001 the residents were threatened with eviction by the provincial governor, an event which led the community to organize itself, holding road blocks and demonstrations on a daily basis. So far they have not been evicted and have continued their struggle, which included the organization of the first meeting of indigenous peoples of Rosario. The meeting took place in February of 2007, and brought together a number of indigenous communities from the region. The issues raised in this meeting lead the participants to the realisation that their struggle is a microcosm of the situation of other indigenous peoples throughout Argentina. To gain force, they decided, they would have to go beyond Rosario.

We have never been down on our knees

On June 24th and 25th of 2007, Barrio Toba became the site of a momentous event. For the first time in the history of Argentina, representatives of indigenous peoples and nations from all over the country gathered together to unite their struggles and become a force for positive change.

"We have never been down on our knees, for over 500 years we have been on our feet fighting and yet today we have reached a new phase. What we are seeing this weekend is truly an insurrection," says Samiyje community representative Fidelina Diaz from the North Western Province of Salta. "The Government policies over the past few years have pushed us to the very limit – this weekend we have joined forces to say "ENOUGH."

"This unification of the indigenous peoples and nations in Argentina has been brought about by a rapid deterioration in their situation in the past few years," explains Margarita Penailillo, a Mapuche leader and one of the organizers of the meeting, "Under the administration of the current President Kirchner, land is being sold throughout the country on a massive scale to multi national companies representing in particular petroleum, open caste mining and genetically modified soy industries. To make way for these companies, indigenous peoples are being violently evicted from land which belonged to their ancestors."

The two day meeting was a clear testimony to these struggles as representatives of 15 different indigenous groups told the stories of their communities.

Representatives from the North and the Centre of the country described their resistance to massive deforestation – in one province an area 26 times the size of the city of Buenos Aires had been cut down in the space of four years to make way for soy plantations controlled by multinational companies specialising in genetically modified seeds. Martines Lopez of the Union Campesina of the Chaco region told of how these companies were forcing indigenous and other small scale farmers from their land by carrying out fertilisation from the air, spraying chemicals which made it impossible for the community to stay for health reasons. He also explained how the companies placed their own private security guards on the land who were prepared to shoot at any so-called intruder.

ImageRepresentatives from mountainous regions in the north-east and south of the country described their resistance to open pit mining projects by north American companies. Viro Vilte from the community of Cangregilio in the province of Jujuy told of his community’s resistance to a project for an open caste mine based along a mountain range which forms the heart of their existence, and of the strategy of the local Government to divide local communities and weaken their resistance. Representatives from the Central and Southern regions described mass evictions of communities as large portions of land were being sold to individual entrepreneurs and companies. In one case, a community which had found itself fenced in on its land, was suddenly confronted with a legal case – the petroleum company which had bought the land was accusing them of usurpation due to their refusal to leave.

"Slowly the Government has been killing us with its policies. The only thing we have left is our life, the two legs we are standing on, they have taken everything else away from us," says Margarita, " As a result we are now prepared to loose our lives in this new struggle so that our children will have opportunities and the possibility of a dignified life."

Like small rivers which come together

Events in neighbouring Bolivia have also given new life to their struggle. According to community leader Jorge Angula, "There has been a process of re-concientisation among the indigenous people in Jujuy as more and more are beginning to recognise their identity and their land claims. The election of Evo Morales as the first indigenous president in Latin America has given weight to these claims and brought our struggle to a new phase."

In comparison to Bolivia, the original inhabitants of Argentina represent a small minority. This has led indigenous Argentines recognise their struggle as linked to that of other oppressed sectors of society – in particular small scale farmers, trade unionists and the unemployed. "In Chaco we have joined forces with other sectors and, despite threats from the local Governor that if we continued with our actions he would be left with no choice but to kill all of us, together we carried out marches of 80km (50 mi) and 120km (75 mi) to demand food and land and held a 35 day camp-out in the square of the capital city of our province," says Martines Lopez.

"Since the foundation of the Republic of Argentina until today, a minority has ruled the country and created wealth for itself at the expense of over 50 per cent of the population who today live in unbearable poverty," says representative from Jujuy Leonor Palacio, "This minority has divided the social movements, pitted us against each other and deceived us with lies and false promises. We now know that in order to bring about significant change in Argentina we need to unite our struggles with the majority of the population with whom we share a common enemy: the government and politicians."

During the meeting, in depth discussions were held on the issues of land, identity, gender, laws and youth and initiatives for joining forces were proposed. In the final declaration of the two day meeting, the representatives stated "500 years of oppression, exploitation and discrimination have become unbearable and we are now saying Enough! We are uniting and joining forces, like small rivers which flow together to form a giant, revolutionary river. But this river will not be strong enough to break the dike of injustice and to end the power of the minorities if we do not join forces with the majority of the Argentinean people who are struggling in the cities and rural areas against a common enemy. We want to change history and to end the chain of exploitation, oppression and dependence and bring about a new democracy where all peoples and nations are represented."

On a quiet Saturday morning in downtown Rosario, the first steps of this new democracy were taken. Participants of the meeting gathered amidst the grey cement monuments dedicated to the foundation of the Republic of Argentina and demanded recognition of their constitutional and historical rights. For the first time in their history a representative of each of the 15 participating peoples and nations, stood on the steps of the monument to the flag of Argentina and read a statement in their native language. They called for compliance with their legal rights to ancestral land and an end to the ferocious environmental destruction and oppression being wrought, not only by the Argentinean Government, but by the demands of the globalised capitalist system.

The majority of the inhabitants of Rosario were still asleep on that Saturday morning, emerging only as the representatives from the meeting boarded buses back to Barrio Toba. And yet, while they did not witness the unprecedented gathering of their nations original inhabitants on their city’s and nation’s most famous monuments, they may soon begin to feel its effects. As the buses crossed the city back to Barrio Toba, an insurrection had begun.