Indigenous in Argentina “Drowning in Sadness”

The legal battle waged by an indigenous community in northern Argentina against the government over a project that flooded half of their territory highlights the fact that legal title to their land is not enough to overcome the marginalisation they have faced for centuries.


(IPS) – The legal battle waged by an indigenous community in northern Argentina against the government over a project that flooded half of their territory highlights the fact that legal title to their land is not enough to overcome the marginalisation they have faced for centuries.

El Descanso, 1,500 kilometres north of Buenos Aires, is a Pilagá indigenous community in the northeastern Argentine province of Formosa. It is located next to the La Estrella wetlands, an area spanning 400,000 hectares that undergoes rises in water levels periodically throughout the year.

In 1997 the provincial government began construction on a canal on the Río del Norte river that was meant to divert water from the wetlands to other settlements. But the project was never completed, and in addition, it flooded 1,000 of the 2,500 hectares of land that have been officially declared Pilagá territory.

What was formerly natural and temporary flooding has become permanent and affected local biodiversity, leading to a shortage of natural resources that the Pilagá people need for their survival.

“The technical experts came into our community and took their measurements in front of us, as if they owned the place. But we have ownership deeds, fences and animals,” said community leader César Salazar.

The Pilagá filed a lawsuit against the provincial government in 2001, but nothing came of it. Their ongoing struggle is documented in a newly released report, “Exigimos respeto. Argentina: Los derechos de los pilagá del bañado La Estrella” (We Demand Respect. Argentina: The rights of the Pilagá of the La Estrella wetlands).

The report, prepared by the Argentine chapter of Amnesty International (AI) and the residents of El Descanso themselves, notes that the community is home to “around 130 people, who belong to 13 nuclear families which, in turn, form part of six extended families.”

The violation of their rights is “a case that demonstrates the vulnerability and discrimination faced by indigenous people in Argentina,” said Gabriela Boada, the executive director of AI Argentina.

Some 600,000 of the more than 40 million people of this South American country identify themselves as indigenous people. Of the roughly 30 indigenous groups in the country, the largest are the Mapuche, Kolla and Toba, according to figures from the government-run Institute of Indigenous Affairs.

The Pilagá people, who live in the provinces of Formosa and neighbouring Chaco, number around 6,000 in total.

The violence and exploitation to which the residents of El Descanso have been subjected, says the new report, “are just one example of the cycle of discrimination, exclusion, forced silence and insecurity that keeps indigenous peoples mired in poverty and contributes to the violation of their human rights.”

The lawyer representing the Pilagá people, Roxana Silva, told IPS that the lawsuit against the provincial government for undertaking the doomed project without previously consulting the community was filed a full nine years ago, but since that time, there has been only a single hearing.

The community is demanding compensation for the large area of their land that has been flooded, which was occupied by a cemetery, a school, a community centre and the homes of seven families. But up until now, they have not even succeeded in getting the judge to order an inspection of the site.

“Obviously, the ownership deeds that this community possesses do not guarantee them the right to their land,” commented Silva, a member of the Equipo Nacional Diocesano de Pastoral Aborigen (National Pastoral Indigenous Group), a Catholic Church organisation.

In this case, the government “violated the right of the community to give prior, free and informed consent” to the project — a right protected by the international agreements that Argentina has incorporated into its own national constitution, says AI.

Saturnino Miranda, a delegate from the Federation of the Pilagá People, which represents 20 communities, stated at the launch of the report that the government recognises their ownership of their land, “but by not consulting us, it tramples our rights and seeks to weaken us.”

He reported that the most active members of the community, and some of their allies, such as Silva, have been subjected to threats and harassment, as well as false promises of solutions that never arrive.

Miranda stressed that the rights of indigenous peoples do not outweigh the rights of any other Argentine citizens, “but we demand equality” and a swift decision by the courts, he said.

“If we continue waiting, then 50 years from now, although we have the ownership deeds, we will not have our land, and without land we cannot have food, health or education,” he said.

The representatives of the community described how their lives had changed following the canal project. Not only has the local economy been affected — many have been forced to look for work outside the community — but also their habitat and quality of life.

“We used to easily catch fish in the wetlands. The women would head out in the morning and bring back fish for lunch,” Oscar Florico, a resident of El Descanso, told IPS.

But as a result of the platform constructed in the wetlands by the Department of Water Resources, without conducting an environmental impact assessment or consulting with the local residents, the river and forests have become practically inaccessible.

“The algarrobo trees have withered and the animals have died. My family had 100 goats and now they only have 15 because the pasture land is now underwater,” he said.

“We are drowning in sadness. We don’t know whether to live or die. We can’t find a way out of this,” Florico said.

The shrinking of the Pilagá community’s territory has also had an impact on their health. Although they have no medical facilities close by, they were traditionally able to depend up their own medical plant remedies, which are now out of their reach because of the flooding.

“Our aim is for them to make reparations for what they have done to us,” Salazar told IPS.

“They must fix the fences they destroyed, compensate us for the 1,000 hectares of land that were flooded, and above all, they must consult us, so that we can voice our opinions,” he said.

Photo by Amnistía Internacional / Natalia Godoy – FLY Studio.