Argentina Profunda: Extractivism and Resistance

“The root of the land conflicts lies in the dispute over the use and control of territorial space stemming from the imposition of one culture over another. On the one side is agribusiness, where land is a space to produce and do business. On the other side there is indigenous and peasant culture, where land is understood to be a place for life,” stated the Chaco Argentina Agroforestry Network (REDAF) in a recent report.

As genetically modified agriculture advances, so too does rural unrest and murder of campesinos and indigenous peoples. The indigenous demand an end to extractivism and respect for their human rights.

In Argentina, there have been eleven campesino and indigenous deaths in less than three years. The last to occur was of Asijak Juan Diaz, a Qom indigenous man from the Primavera community (in the northern province of Formosa), who died in a suspicious car accident. What lies behind the repression is an agricultural model, which seeks a 60 percent increase in grain production through expanding into the territory where indigenous and campesino people live and work. The national government has not condemned any of the murders. The Plurinational Indigenous Council (CPI) has called for an end to extractivism, unmasking the government’s progressive discourse, by demanding that it respects the human rights of indigenous peoples.

Javier Chocobar, Ely Sandra Juarez, Roberto Lopez, Mario Lopez, Mártires Lopez, Cristian Ferreyra, Miguel Galván, Celestina Jara, Lila Coyipé, Imer Flores and Juan Diaz Asijak. They are all campesinos and indigenous people killed over the past three years. In some cases (Chocobar, Roberto Lopez, Ferreyra and Galván), they were murdered in cold blood with guns and knives. In others (Mario Lopez and Mártires López, Jara, Asijak, and the baby girl Coyipé) they were killed in suspicious “traffic accidents” (according to the version of the police and politicians) or “murdered” according to their families and organizations to which they belonged.

All the peasant and indigenous organizations point to the extractive model as what’s behind the repression. It is a model that has grown greatly in the last decades through the expansion of genetically modified crops (mainly soybeans, but not exclusively), large-scale mining, deforestation and fossil fuels.

In March 1996, when the government of Carlos Menem approved the use of genetically modified soybeans with glyphosate, the oilseed crop occupied 6 million hectares. By 2003 it had already covered 11 million hectares. In the latest campaign, the Ministry of Agriculture celebrated its expansion to over 19.8 million hectares, or 56 percent of cultivated land in Argentina. The Agrifood Strategic Plan (PEA), a program introduced in 2011 by president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, aims to reach a level of production of 160 million tons of grain (60 percent more than the current crop) and an increase in hectares of cultivated area by 27 percent (going from 33 million hectares to 42 million) by 2020.

The “shift of the agricultural frontier,” a technical euphemism used to chart out the advance of agribusiness on rural and indigenous regions, has multiplied conflicts across northern Argentina. For example, just in Santiago del Estero the provincial government counted 600 land conflicts over the last four years.

The Chaco Argentina Agroforestry Network (REDAF) – a collective that brings together NGOs, grassroots organizations and technicians – investigates and surveys the conflicts. In their most recent report of data from August 2011, they recorded (in the northern area of the country) 244 cases of conflict: 209 are exclusively land disputes, 25 are environmental, and 10 are mixed cases. All of the land conflicts are due to the shift of the agricultural frontier. The disputed area covers over 11.4 million hectares of land that affects 1.6 million people, mostly campesinos and indigenous peoples.

“The root of the land conflicts lies in the dispute over the use and control of territorial space stemming from the imposition of one culture over another. On the one side is agribusiness, where land is a space to produce and do business. On the other side there is indigenous and peasant culture, where land is understood to be a place for life,” stated REDAF in its report. It is not a coincidence that most of the conflicts (89 percent) began after 2000: “This aligns with the push for the agro-export model, favored by the conditions of the international market to commercialize soybean, which resulted in the expansion of the agricultural frontier.”

On November 17 and 18, 2012, indigenous organizations from across the country gathered in Buenos Aires, among them stood out the Plurinational Indigenous Council (a new space for coordination born during Argentina’s bicentennial in May 2010). They all squarely targeted the extraction model.

“We’ve never had so many rights enshrined in national norms and international instruments that have been ratified by the State. However, we live in an alarming period of negation and exclusion. Our reality is a human rights issue. Yet the relationship the State proposes with indigenous peoples is only from a perspective of poverty. They only make us visible only as objects needing assistance or emergency plans, when in fact we are subjects of political and territorial rights,” denounces the document that strikes squarely at one of the flags of the Kirchner government: human rights and the systematic violation of the rights of indigenous peoples.

In January, a group of intellectuals and cultural figures wrote an open letter to the president of the nation. “We are facing an escalation of violence with a state that exhibits little or no capacity to adequately act in the arbitration of these conflicts, violence and abuse of rights that indigenous peoples suffer,” the letter stated and signed (among others) by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the journalist and historian Osvaldo Bayer.

The extensive letter covers historical events that have hit native peoples hard, concretely criticizing the state’s shortcomings, and proposes active policies to reverse the situation. In a respectful tone it voices a well-founded critical appeal to the President:

“This is a problem of national scope that has been worsening dramatically in recent times. All of the victims are from a region that has become, over the last years, a renewed frontier of economic expansion primarily for large economic groups linked to agribusiness, fossil fuels and to a lesser extent, tourism. Many of the victims have reported threats and abuses by the National Guard and other armed groups, both police and vigilante. Questionable accidents and murders have intensified in the last three years. If a country like ours, that is populated by dozens of indigenous groups who are part of the citizenry, allows there to be continued killings or deaths in highly suspicious situations and does not use all of its tools in seeking the truth, then the human rights policy that most of the society welcomes, supports and accepts is clearly affected.”

Signed by thousands of people in just a few days, the letter calls for investigations of the killings, enforcement of laws that are supposed to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and that the state intervenes in the extraction model that continues to advance on communities. It also requested from the President that, “It is urgent and necessary for the national government to morally and publicly condemn these abhorrent acts (the murders).”

There was no response from national government officials.

A week after the open letter, on February 4, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner participated in a public event with Gildo Insfran, the governor of the province of Formosa, the epicenter of repression against the Qom indigenous people.

Televised, there was no mention of the indigenous situation, but rather abundant smiles and mutual support at the event. It was as if the open letter, and the murders of the indigenous, never existed.

*Translator’s Note: The title makes reference to América profunda, a book by Argentinian philosopher Rodolfo Kusch, known for his investigations on indigenous and popular thought.

Darío Aranda is an Argentinian journalist who travels across the country documenting and denouncing the advance of the extractivist model and participating in campesino and indigenous struggles. He writes for Pagina/12 and MU, and is author of Argentina originaria (LaVaca, 2010).