Nine representatives from the Wichí indigenous community have completed over 35 days on hunger strike in Argentina’s northeastern province of Chaco. For over two months hundreds of indigenous people from rural areas have camped out in front of the provincial government building to demand land distribution, education and health care for Chaco ‘s indigenous communities.
"Our children suffer here at the camp, we are suffering. The rich people with gold say that we’re poor off here at the camp, it’s true but we’re going to continue to fight" said Eleuterio Gómez, one of the weathered protestors at the camp.
In addition, he said that his community is prepared for hardship after 500 years of colonialism.
Dozens of improvised tents, clotheslines and pots over campfires scatter the central plaza in Chaco ‘s capital Resistencia. A group of women prepare fried bread and stew for hundreds of protestors at the 60 day old camp. Food runs short at every meal and many suffice with hot maté.
The hunger strikers have been locked in a government office with no windows. The government has refused to allow the hunger strikers visitors and in the first days of protest they were not allowed to use bathroom facilities. The nine strikers sleep on the floor or sitting. One hunger striker had to end his protest because he suffers from a disease called Mal de Chagas. Despite declining health, the hunger strikers continue with their protest.
Chaco, the nation’s poorest province is home to 60,000 indigenous from the Toba, Mocoví and Wichí communities. The nine on hunger strike and hundreds at the camp demand that Governor Roy Nikisch meet with Wichí delegates to resolve the complaints of improper public land distribution. In the past decade, soy farmers and cattle ranchers have bought much of the government land that should have gone to indigenous communities and small farmers.
According to Mártires López, from Union Campesina (an indigenous organization), Governor Nikisch hasn’t respected a law protecting indigenous land.
"Aborigines have sold their land, which is something terrible. Thousands of hectares have been sold. We’re in a bad situation, we don’t know how to demand our rights. We have a law, but it’s like the law doesn’t exist for us," said López. "The law says that the government has to delegate land to communities. But they aren’t following through. The children are dying of hunger. There’s not a minimal level of health for us in Chaco ."
In many cases the Wichí, strapped for resources, sold their land at prices lower than the market value. The Wichí suffer from malnutrition and preventable diseases like Chagas and Cholera.
Conditions have been declined for the Wichí people for decades, due to land concentration. However, the protests came to a head after flooding destroyed many communities living in the jungle region called "El Impenetrable."
"We are living in extreme poverty because of the lack of resources at the provincial level," says Luis Gonzalez while warming his hands over a campfire. "We don’t receive any aid. We are suffering from lack of water. Even if it is true that we own the lots, we can’t sell wood because the mountains belong to others. Families make the sacrifice of coming here to the camp with the hope of bringing our families out of death’s grip and back to life."
The protestors are also calling for the resignation of Lorenzo Heffner, local mayor of Villa Río Bermejito who they accuse of discriminating against indigenous people. In the town of Villa Río Bermejito, schools have been refused bi-lingual teachers and curriculum. They also accuse Heffner of withholding food aid sent to them by the national government. Residents discovered a warehouse of perishable foods close to the town hall in April, which should have been distributed weeks earlier. Heffner has stated in news interviews that the Wichí people don’t want to work.
Milcíades Mansilla is president of the Red de Comunicación Indígena and has labored as a cotton farmer his entire life. While showing his calloused hands, he says that the aboriginal communities need land to work.
"The politicians ask in the media: ‘why do the indigenous want land if they don’t work?’ It’s not that we don’t work. We want land to develop our indigenous communities because we can grow a ton of crops for our people," said Mansilla.
Monica Chalole says that the governor has refused to meet with Wichí delegates for months, leading the hunger strikers to take action.
"These communities got tired and said that they were going to do something to change the situation," said Chalole. "According to studies, 3.9 million hectares of public land has been sold to businessmen and politicians. As indigenous people we believe that the national and provincial governments have never seriously considered resolving the issue of the aboriginal people. This is why the indigenous communities are living in horrendous conditions."
Only 660,000 hectares out of the 3.9 million hectares of public land in Chaco remain, the rest has been distributed to private land holders. Seven percent of land holders currently own 70 percent of Chaco’s land. A large percentage of Chaco’s public land and jungles have been cleared to grow genetically modified soy. Argentina is the world’s second largest producer of genetically modified soy. Forest fires, flooding and the spread of diseases like cholera and leprosy are just some of the immediate consequences of deforestation. In a report released last December, scientists concluded Argentina will lose half of its native forests in the next few years.
Chalole, the sister of one of the hunger strikers adds that the community is worried about the hunger strikers’ declining health.
"The hunger strike started from the lack of a concrete solution. We tried to hold a dialogue, but the ministers refused to meet with us. Our brothers and sisters went on hunger strike to be heard two months ago, but still the government hasn’t offered us a solution," said Chalole.
Wichí have set up a camp in front of Chaco ‘s central offices in Buenos Aires last week. In Resistencia, two months of protesting has taken its toll of the Wichí people. Gonzalez admits his people are tired and hungry, but says they will continue to fight.
"We are suffering from lack of economic resources, which is why we ask our brothers and sisters to help us in our struggle. The governor has a heart made of rock, which is why he can’t listen to our community. We will not shut up, our people will triumph," said Gonzalez.