Interview with Darío Aranda: Extractivism, Resistance, Repression, and Journalism in Argentina

Darío Aranda, I think, is a bit like Rodolfo Walsh. Like Walsh, Aranda has no place on the editorial staff of newspapers and media companies, even those that still fly the flags of the Open Letter to the Military Junta. He still works closely with campesino and Indigenous communities who resist in defense of their ancestral territories and ways of life. He doesn’t tolerate being enclosed in an editorial office, writing or editing what “reliable” news agency cables tell him to write.

Source: Revista Underground

Darío Aranda, I think, is a bit like Rodolfo Walsh. Like Walsh, Aranda has no place on the editorial staff of newspapers and media companies, even those that still fly the flags of the Open Letter to the Military Junta. He still works closely with campesino and Indigenous communities who resist in defense of their ancestral territories and ways of life. He doesn’t tolerate being enclosed in an editorial office, writing or editing what “reliable” news agency cables tell him to write.

In this interview, Darío recognizes some achievements of a national government that opened up debates that had never before been opened in Argentine history. He values these important advances in the terrain of Truth, Memory, and Justice, and ponders our incomplete democracy’s Media Law. But every time he sets foot on the dusty ground of what were native vegetation areas (montes) and artisanal crops and today are “green deserts” irrigated with glyphosate and indigenous and campesino blood, he is reminded that it is not enough.

This interview was done at the end of 2010, in a moment soon after the assassinations of activists Mariano Ferreyra in the Buenos Aires barrio of Barracas and Roberto López, on a Formosa highway, both deaths at the hand of hired assassins, agents of company/union bureaucracy and extractive capitalism [ed. note Roberto López was an indigenous activist]. Later, another Ferreyra was assassinated, Cristian from the Santiago del Estero Campesino Movement. Later, another dead in Santiago in the fight for land for those who work and live on it: Miguel Galván. Then the dead of the Indo-American Park of Buenos Aires, and the dead of Ledesma, Jujuy, who had fought for the decent housing they are denied both in the country and the city.  

Why is the question of human rights circumscribed to urban social conflict and why doesn’t it extend to agrarian or indigenous questions?

It is not something I discovered, it has been reflected about by indigenous communities, peasant organizations and academic sector for quite some time. Generally when briefly mentioning kidnapping or the theft of babies, or concentration camps, or torture, the current generations immediately think about the last military dictatorship. We do not doubt it was genocide. To others who had different experiences it probably makes them think about the Jewish people at the hands of Nazism, and we do not doubt it was genocide.

The indigenous peoples of Argentina suffered exactly the same thing. However, there are still today important sectors of society, academic sectors, opinion makers, who deny that genocide. The reflection of some communities and academic researchers is that the denial of the genocide on which the Argentine State was founded makes possible the existence of a current genocidal process against indigenous peoples. It’s very particular, the way society works and the way journalism works, because many of us have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this problem. But what was missing was a judge of the Supreme Court of the Nation saying it, for it to have a different effect. Two years ago I had the opportunity to interview the judge Raúl Zaffaroni, and he said it very clearly: Human Rights in Argentina are for the urban middle and upper classes. For impoverished, indigenous sectors, for the campesino sectors, human rights don’t matter.  

There are two events that make this quite clear. One was in when in 2008, when at the time of the Resolution 125 (a farm exports tax), large portions of society came out and supported the agrarian sector, which was looking for increased profitability. One year earlier, in 2007, indigenous peoples were on the front pages of the national press for the first time, due to 10 malnutrition deaths in the Chaco—no urban sectors, neither the same amount of people nor many less, protested or supported the indigenous. That marks a difference, on one side profitability, and on the other, death. This came to light when they assassinated Mariano Ferreyra. In that moment, the opposition as much as the governing party came out, throwing rotten fish or arguments at one another (or a little of both) about who should have taken responsibility for the deaths. Mariano Ferreyra, assassinated, had a political cost. Just a few weeks later, they assassinated Roberto López during a road blockade in Formosa, and then the issue became completely imperceptible. Even forty eight hours after the assassination, the president did a teleconference with governor Gildo Insfrán, and there wasn’t even a single mention of the matter; they were all smiles. There had been a death in the route, an assassination.  

This, to me, laid bare the insurmountable contradiction the Government has, which is not exclusive of this Government. The rest of the political parties also have this contradiction, but in the case of the national government it is more visible, because power is concentrated there, and is exercised in and through the leadership of the State. If the price they have to pay for that power is the blood of indigenous people and peasants, they will pay it.

This differentiation of human rights has a lot to do with the extractive economic mode, upon which the productive economy of Argentina is based. This applies, not only in Argentina, but also regionally. All of the governments of the region, from those named progressive or leftist to those of the center or center-right, obtain a large part of their rent from an extractive model that has different faces: it could be open pit mining, it could be soy monoculture, it could be oil, it could be tree monoculture, it could be a combination of many of these. Then, to maintain this rent, all of the governments of the region advance over new territories, and those new territories are today in the hands of the
campesinos and the indigenous, who often resist.

So it’s much more worrisome that there hadn’t been social condemnation over Roberto López’s assassination, because the advancement over
campesino and indigenous territories is going to continue, and if there isn’t condemnation, there isn’t justice, and if there isn’t justice, it will happen again.

Sectors of the left might have also highlighted some incidents over others…

It’s a question of social class, of social identification, it happens with journalists too, and I include myself because I feel that I am part of the problem. Although one tries to act differently, we have a middle class mentality. And when I say middle class, I’m not talking about purchasing power. Mariano Ferreyra, or even Darío Santillán and Maxi Kosteki, are in that group of middle, urban sectors, children that drew pictures, children that planned to go to university, though they end up doing other things.  We journalists also come from that same social background, and we tend to measure things up in a different way. In the same vein, why is Axel Blumberg different than Ezequiel Demonty?[1]

It comes to light there as well. The indigenous peoples practically don’t exist; they are the past, the present, and the future denied. It’s not me who is discovering this, it’s something that you experience all the time. In Salta, fifteen children just died because of malnutrition. Why doesn’t anyone know? Because they are indigenous children. There are different ways of measuring distinct social sectors from the journalistic perspective, especially when it’s a matter of remote, rural groups.

These days, journalism is based on certain matters: on one side, labor flexibility, on the other, “from the desk” journalism. Many colleagues don’t want to leave their air conditioning or their indoor heating, so it is difficult to know, to be familiar with the reality of peasant or indigenous Argentina. In the third place, class identification…Which class identification can have a colleague who doesn’t leave the editorial office and almost never leaves Buenos Aires, with a Mbya Guaraní from the province of Misiones? It’s the same discrimination, making a big jump, that someone from the posh neighborhood of Recoleta has towards someone from Villa de Retiro slum.

It’s not chance that alternative, cooperative media best undertake campesino and indigenous issues, because they are the media that are in the streets. I feel privileged to be able to write about these issues in a daily paper that circulates nationwide, that it’s read, but I’m not a gatekeeper of truth for it. It’s a question of opening your eyes a little.

It seems to me that there are a lot of journalists that adhere to the Kirchenerist project and don’t criticize or denounce things like Robert López’s assassination. It’s happened with many close to me, who maintain that if one links the national government to these things, one is playing the game of the right. It happened quite a few times. And I kept thinking, until it dawned on me. Every time they tell me that, in a chat or presentation, I counter that the person who plays the game of the Right is the person who silences repression or is an accomplice in the assassinations. In that sense, the national government certainly is. You can no longer say that it doesn’t suppress protests or that there weren’t deaths because of repression during its administration. Just as Dulhalde had the assassinations of Darío and Maxi, today the national government of Cristina Fernández bears the responsibility for the assassination of Roberto López; all of the sectors of the national government that could have a type of link to or be involved in the issue played to the favor of the government of Insfrán, and played so that justice wouldn’t be achieved. At least up until today, four months after the assassination.

Why did the Ferreyra case move forward, and the issue of rural labor formalization seems to do so, and not the other issues?

In the case of Mariano Ferreyra, the investigation is pushed forward because, in that case, there is effectively no direct political responsibility of the national government, beyond that which might be related to the union leader José Pedraza, and that there still might be people that respond to that syndicalism in rail management. It is positive, I think, that the investigation is not being hampered. It would be really good if they did the same in the case of Formosa, but they don’t. They chose to cover up an assassination and repression. They met with Santiago’s governor Gildo Insfrán three times in the last four months and never met with the families of the victims. Isfrán was the first governor that went along with Nestor Kirchner’s project, as he had been the first to go with Duhalde, before he went with the Alliance and also had gone along with Menem.   

On the topic of slave labor, which in reality isn’t slave labor—let’s call it exploitative work or semi-slave work, if you want. It’s a completely criminal reality that has existed for more than a century in our country. On one side, the Mesa de Enlace (agribusiness representatives’ organization) is blamed for slave labor. Whoever seriously studies rural labor realizes that the agribusiness model is where there isn’t much manual labor at all, especially in soy agribusiness. In soy and in the feedlots, which constitute the focus of the Mesa de Enlace, that is where there is less over-exploited or slave labor, because it is where there are larger labor controls and a reduced workforce. To say that slave labor is the exclusive responsibility of the Mesa de Enlaces is an error. It has its responsibility, considering that it deals with the traditional agricultural and livestock managerial entities, but it’s the national Government that has the greatest responsibility.  This attracts my attention, as some colleagues reproduce the idea that the national Government is the champion of the fight against rural slave labor. I had the opportunity to interview some officials of the Ministry of Labor, and they have assured me that the rural labor inspections are carried out in 2 per cent of all the establishments. The state’s police power is minimal. And that is a political decision. They usually do statistics on a minimal number, and all of the specialists tell you that it’s not at all representative. And many colleagues take that as an absolute truth, without asking how it was made. It’s fine that the issue has been put on the table, but it seems that, one thing is the discourse of the national government and another, its practice. The national government has a lot of responsibility for this type of labor practices, and it’s far from being the champion in the fight against that “slave” labor.

There are organizations that have been denouncing and fighting this type of rural slave labor for a long time in the streets. On the other side…why don’t they give the same importance to the demands of indigenous or campesino peoples? The national government isn’t going to recognize it, but today campesinos and the indigenous are those who question the national government and the extractive model the most.

An analysis we used to do with a few colleagues: at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, the greatest social unrest and resistance was among the urban sectors. In the movements of the unemployed, in recovered factories, questioning of the state and the political parties took place in urban sectors. In the last years there have been concrete economic improvements; it would be hypocritical to deny it. So those mobilized urban groups have lost a great deal of their militancy and their potential of challenging the state in the streets. It’s still there, but much less than it was ten years ago.

A lot of the compañeros that were part of those struggles have seen those economic improvements, and have withdrawn, fallen back. Today, rural, campesino, and indigenous sectors, and socio-environmental groups are the ones that take over the task in the debates and struggles with national and provincial governments. It has to do with the advance of extractive industry. Consider this detail: they aren’t fighting for economic improvements like the urban sectors did a decade ago—and it’s okay that it’s like that, I’m not questioning them for it—they are fighting to maintain their way of life. What’s at stake is their way of life, not having better profitability to improve their purchasing power.

So, as Javier Chocobar said before they assassinated him, if they have to give their life to defend their territories, they are going to give it. The extractive model, with the complicity of both companies and governments, is costing lives. And it’s going to keep happening. Never before in history has transgenic soy production increased so much, never before has open pit mining grown so much as in the last decade.

That marks the line along which the politics of this country operate. And if the current progressivism doesn’t deal with these facts, those deaths are going to keep happening.

Why do you think that, at the urban level, the consciousness that housing and overcrowding problems are directly related to the expulsion of rural inhabitants doesn’t exist?

My hypothesis is that recognizing that link is just not worth it to the powerful sectors—private and state. The National Indigenous Campesino Movement has been denouncing it for years. Above all, for the growth of the soy model, which expels the most people. Mining, yes, can been detrimental for small villages, but the node of the problem of rural expulsion continues to be monoculture, first of soy, and second of trees. In the last twenty years, the percentage of rural population in Argentina has more or less remained the same. It’s about ten percent. The large urban corridors continue to grow, Rosario, Santa Fe, Greater Buenos Aires. One can travel for a half hour in a train from Buenos Aires and see how large a part of the population is born in Santiago del Estero, in Corrientes. They are from all of the provinces that historically were losing their campesino sectors. The link with the extractive model is direct. What I don’t know is if it’s only because of that.

Do you think that in cases of resistance, like that of the city of Esquel against mining, the participation of small proprietors was more decisive thatn that of the campesino and indigenous peoples? That it gave the movement more of a chance for victory?

In the case of Esquel, I think the participation of the urban middle class was decisive, over those so-called eco-producers. I believe it was a city that took consciousness of how a mining project was going to impact their lives. So a city that is small from the perspective of Buenos Aires but important in terms of the population of its province, became an important emblem, also in awakening other struggles.  But I don’t think that only in those sectors the key to stopping extractive projects is to be found. The Mellao Morales community of Neuquén stopped a mining project, and it’s an indigenous community. Indigenous communities of Jujuy stopped a mining company. Always in the sphere of the courts, but they stopped it.

In the case of Santiago del Estero or Córdoba, it’s happened that displaced campesinos have recovered their lands. Those are struggles won. They are important struggles in the formation of rural cadres that are so necessary. The fact that from the urban sectors the issue is not understood like, is more a problem of the city than a problem of the rural sectors. I insist on this: today the struggle against extractive industries is not being fought for a romantic environmentalism, but for maintaining a way of life.

An indigenous person from Formosa showed me this: for an infrastructure project, they flooded the cemetery of her community. And she expressed it with that simplicity, and at the same time, wisdom of the rural people. She said to me “If they find oil in Buenos Aires, and to extract it they have to flood the cemetery of Recoleta, are they going to do it?” In that sense, she questions us. She questions political power, not to mention the private sector, but she also questions society. Why does it seem okay to us, as an urban society, to destroy those ways of life in the name of “development?” Development for whom? I don’t believe Minera La Alumbrera is development for Andalgalá. And an important factor in me saying this is the indigenous peoples. It’s not the only factor, but it’s important. Argentina has an advanced legislation that protects indigenous rights.  This has to do with the fact that, to advance over certain territories, you have to have the approval of the communities themselves. When the communities are organized and in struggle, it will be more difficult for the industries to move forward.  In 2010, there were two very important rural sector marches in Buenos Aires. In May, the bicentennial march with indigenous peoples, and in September, with less press coverage but equally important for what it meant, of the National Campesino Indigenous Movement. I don’t remember another year with two marches so important, where they demanded rights but also questioned Argentina for its development model. That makes us optimistic with respect to how the fight is being organized. There is an anecdote from the bicentennial march that expressed very well the feeling of the national government.  The indigenous delegates were meeting with President Cristina Fernández, and the issue of extractive industries came up. The president took the turn to speak. She said concretely “if there is petroleum in a community, the national government is going to take all of the steps for the relocation of that community to be the least traumatic possible.” I spoke with some of the delegates that were in that meeting, and the question was whether the national government hadn’t understood anything or whether it had made a decision. I believe it made a decision; that’s my personal reading.

What would be the similarities and differences between, for example, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, in standing up to these issues? Is this a regional policy?

I think it is. I am much more familiar with the Argentine reality than those of other countries, but I believe that the rough outline is the same. For this reason I was saying that all progressive governments base their rent on the extractive model. There is one extractive model, but it has many faces. The Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil (MST)—the largest rural organization of the continent—says is quite clearly: during the government of Lula, nothing was done for agrarian reform, and never did they advance so much over the Amazon. All of the governments of the continent are based on the extractive model. It seems that there could be variations with respect to how regional social organizations are positioned. I know that there are organizations that go with Correa as much as Morales in saying that that is the price of economic development. Also, it would be interesting to analyze how that rent, once obtained, is distributed. In Argentina, it seems that neither the mining nor the soy model are for the redistribution of wealth. The conflict around Resolution 125 was not over the distribution of wealth but for another slice of the pie for the national government.

I do recognize two good things about the government. Since I began studying journalism, they say that no government put up with more than 5 opposition cover stories in Clarín. This government not only put up with them, but rather it went for more. We can stop and wonder why they did it, in such-and-such moment for such-and-such interests, etc. But yes, it’s true that it was in opposition to the Clarín group. The Media Law was achieved; I never thought I was going to live to see that. And then the nationalization of the AFJP[2]— that’s  a measure against economic power. When I criticize the extractive model and the systemic violation of indigenous rights, I’m not denying these things. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say so, because the media artillery that goes along with the government says it all the time. Universal children’s benefits are great; pensions for many who had not made their retirement contributions.

I think that, taking out the days of the Cámpora government, this has got to be the best government of the last fifty years. But we’re not doing a favor to this government, and to those who fervently go along with it, if we don’t make a specific critique about things that we can’t ignore. Like repression and assassination. The Formosa incident marked a break—is this the cost we have to pay to sustain the model? Well, I don’t subscribe to that. There are those that put up with it and say that it’s something we have to swallow. I believe that there, progressivism comes apart. In that sense, in that particular event, there is precisely no difference between the Kirchner government and the Right.

As for how these issues are presented in the media, it seems that when they kill a worker, the issue deserves to be in the political section of the paper, but if the victim is an indigenous person, the story is put in the Society section.

In Página/12, I don’t know how they do it; sometimes it appears in Society, sometimes in the Nation section. Yes, it seems that, historically, the everyday events of indigenous peoples and communities were linked with the folkloric stuff. Another way to represent the reality of indigenous peoples was through charity.  It seems that in the last couple years there has been an improvement, not in all the media but at least in some professionals, in understanding the reality of indigenous peoples from a social, historical, economic, and political perspective. Today, indigenous people are the one who question the political model the most, not only in Argentina but in all of Latin America. I don’t have a concrete response to why they put those news in the Society section.

Going back to the question of Formosa…yes, it seems that the media aligned to the government treated it as a police issue, which uncovers the hypocrisy of the media. Then they moved a bit forward— I’m still talking about the aligned media—and questioned some aspects of the provincial government, they never questioned the national government for that. That type of thing kills journalism—not relaying the complete reality. On the other hand, oppositional media like Clarín and La Nación immediately linked the assassination of Roberto López to provincial and national politics. And it’s good that it’s like that, but those same media never linked that repression, and that death, with the extractive business model. Because it’s nothing new that those media are the indispensable cogs of that model as well. Here, the polarization of the media comes to light, that what it does is hiding realities. On one side, it hides the complicity of the national government, and on the other side, it hides the complicity of the extractive model. Like many of my friends say, journalism is no longer that which tells, but that which hides.

Sometimes it happens that in “militant journalism,” someone who takes its production as a political tool neglects, or doesn’t get as involved in political fights other than union politics, or their demands as a press worker. Do you think that these two instances come from distinct paths?

I think that today the term “militant journalism” is really bastardized. To me, it makes no sense to call it “militant journalism,” if you do political propaganda for the national government. Although it makes even less sense to me to do “militant journalism” in Clarín. Even if they might not call it militant, they make an exacerbated defense of large media. Generally, the term is used more in the first case. The first thing that comes to mind is that through that “militant journalism,” a ton of things are silenced. Used today, the term does not seem entirely right to me. I thought I was a militant journalist regarding certain things I believe in, but now that I see that the banner of militant journalism is elsewhere, I am questioning myself about it. It seems that, though it’s good to defend an ideology or a project through journalism, we should also fight for decent working conditions in the profession we have chosen. They should go together. I’ve taken part in assemblies, meetings with a lot of people that defend the union, and many times—not all, but many—our trade is dignified only for its economic aspect. For me, there are more important things, and it’s not that I’m full of money, but if the militancy in our trade is only for economic purposes, I don’t opt for that militancy. If you go on strike for a 50 per cent rise but what you write afterwards is garbage…I don’t think that is militancy.

It’s happened to me many times in the assemblies of the media I worked or work for, that the discussion is almost exclusively a matter of salary. This is obviously important, but then you see the person who went on strike outraged to get his 20 per cent—that ’s fine that they do that, they have the right to do so—but then they don’t say a word when their articles are censured, changed, or when they are forced to write trash.

We already know what are the large media companies, we already know that they have interests. What I have been centering on for some time now is the individual responsibility of journalists. We have to stop alleging  due obedience for writing garbage. There are a lot of journalists, friends of mine, that take it as an administrative job. But I think that role, of writing trash, represents a doubly worrying role for society. Because they are being functional to a system that costs lives.

I read four papers everyday: Clarín, Página/12, La Nación, and Tiempo Argentino. On weekends, I read Perfil too. And the number of lies, of distortions, the way information is concealed is astounding. And the most alarming thing of all is that many times, they sign it. That is not militancy, it is to be in the service of the highest bidder. It’s a wonderful moment to debate journalism. When I was studying it was untouchable. Now there is a big debate, and it’s good, because in our trade, and in society, it’s becoming known who’s who, and what the game is about. Kirchnerism had a lot to do with this, I think, and positively so.

In this false polarization between the government and Clarín, I don’t recognize myself. This “for my Kirchnerist friends I am a gorila [3] and for those that are real gorilas, I’m a Kirchnerist” thing…. Well, in any case it’s their problem. I don’t take responsibility for that. And I have a clear conscience because when I work a lot with rural populations or indigenous communities they receive me in their homes, and if they have to tell me something they do it to my face, I eat with them.  That means that I didn’t twist my path. Many of those “champions of human rights” or “champions of free expression” can’t do that. I think there are many other journalists, who work for media like Clarín or La Nación, that don’t have skeletons in their closets. And perhaps they are the ones least spoken of. And for me, there are many alternative social media, or whatever you want to call them, that go for it and tell the truth. For me, this is the closest to what militant journalism could be. For example, the charterer who works 9 hours a day and on the weekends they go and cover an event and write for a blog, or make a show in a radio co-op? I take my hat off to them. That is to commit yourself to life. How many of those so-called “militant journalists” would do that?  

I think there are a lot of journalists with several years’ experience that clearly adhere to the national government but in their lines, they write critiques. I respect that a lot. Because we all have a certain stance and they have theirs, but continue to point things out.

I think that, in general, universities and journalism schools formatted us in a certain way, to adapt to the logics of mass media without ever complaining. On one hand, it’s a false reality, because the mass media have an excessive workforce. But on the other hand, I mean, there is very little rebelliousness, and a lot of due obedience. We already know what the media are; now we have to question what our role in it is. We should stop saying we are the victims, because we aren’t. We all make decisions.


1. Axel Blumberg was a 23 years old engineering student and son of a middle class engineer killed after being kidnapped for several days. Ezequiel Demonty was a 19 years old low class boy who died after police officers forced him to throw himself into the most polluted river in the country, in Buenos Aires city (Riachuelo).

2. Pension and retirement funds.

3. Term used historically in Argentina to refer to the opponents of Peronism.