Locals and Indigenous Groups Combat Big Real Estate in Greater Buenos Aires

“The poor man has to disappear. There is no more countryside. It’s all private neighborhoods. All private neighborhoods.” Sara Espinosa, age 94, lives in Punta Canal in the town of Tigre, where real estate giant EIDICO is currently constructing two gated communities on either side of her house. While most of her neighbors have sold their land and moved away, Espinosa remains.

El pobre tiene que volar. Ya no hay más campo. Todo country, todo country. [The poor man has to disappear. There is no more countryside. It’s all private neighborhoods. All private neighborhoods.]

These are the words of Sara Espinosa, age 94, who lives in Punta Canal in the town of Tigre, just a meters away from the waters of Canal Villanueva. Though she has lived here for more than half a century, in the past few years Espinosa has found herself increasingly isolated from the world beyond her home thanks to fences and a wall of mud built around it by real estate giant EIDICO. The company has purchased the area and is currently constructing two gated communities on either side. While most of her neighbors have sold their land and moved away, Espinosa remains, perhaps unaware of the profit to be made off the land where her humble home stands.

She is talking to Graciela Satalic of the Movement for the Pacha or “Mother Earth,” the organization of neighbors and indigenous people that has been fighting for four years for the preservation of Punta Canal. Satalic later tells me that the EIDICO has isolated the elderly Espinosa to the point where “she can’t even get out.” When I ask her what the company expects the old woman to do she tells me plainly, “They are waiting for her to die.”

“Nuevo Tigre”

In Tigre, located in the province of Buenos Aires about an hour up the river from the bustling city, the ground begins to break off into a series of islands separated by canals and streams, giving way to an abundance of marshlands rich in vegetation and wildlife. Dotting the tall grasses of the wetlands are many poor and working-class communities that use the canals for fishing, recreation, and transportation. One of those communities is that of Punta Canal that runs along Canal Villanueva between the unpaved Brazil street and the Garín stream. The area has long been used by locals and considered public as it holds a portion of an old railway line also known as Punta Canal that belongs to the state.

“When I came to this place that we’re defending now, it was a paradise. A marshland with a lot of native vegetation; fauna with birds, water animals, otters, partridges,” says Satalic who lives in Intendente Maschwitz, the next town over. But in the past ten years a new species has become the most dominant in the Delta: the private neighborhood, which has increasingly encroached on the marshlands, displacing residents and endangering the ecosystem.

Today upon arriving at Punta Canal, one is greeted with a handful of tents, a van that holds up a tarp covering a table and chairs, and two indigenous rainbow flags that make up the encampment of Movement for the Pacha. However it is what lies directly in front of the encampment, across the still waterway that is the real sight: raised embankments covered with palm trees, eucalyptus, and pristine lawns in front of large modern homes. The scene looks ripped from a trendy living magazine and plastered on top of the marshland. It is Santa Catalina, the exclusive nautical neighborhood that is part of EIDICO’s 850 hectare complex Villanueva made up of nine other neighborhoods. These neighborhoods, along with other urban mega-developments like NorDelta (complete with private schools and shopping centers) are part of what is becoming known as “Nuevo Tigre.”

Sandwiched between two of EIDICO’s neighborhoods under construction, San Benito and San Marcos, the movement has been working to protect and preserve two precious hectares of Punta Canal for what many believe good reason.

Burial grounds and bulldozers

In 2001 after ten years of living away from the place that she had grown up, Graciela Satalic moved back to the area to find “the entire landscape of the marshlands changed” due to new developments. Still, she enjoyed taking walks along the water by the old railway. During these walks she began to discover what seemed like indigenous pieces of pottery.

Punch of Guanaco Metapodio from Punta Canal. Photo: Nicolás Solo, Indymedia“I picked them up and some clearly had native etchings on them. Then I found some arrowheads, needles made of bone, things that were really hand-worked, ” she says.

She began collecting all that she could, returning to the shore every day to look, and eventually took them to the museum of Escobar (the next district over) to be looked at by a specialist. From there she was referred to Daniel Loponte, an archeologist of the National Institute of Latin American Anthropology and Thought (INAPL — an organization of the Secretary of Culture) who is responsible for sites in the Delta. In 2006 he finally came to recognize the area as one that had supposedly been previously discovered and then lost. Though he didn’t carry out a full excavation at the time, Loponte identified the items Satalic had found as being more than 1000 to 1500 years old, belonging primarily to the Querandí people as well as a variety of other indigenous groups such as the Guaraní.

Satalic along with residents of the area and members of indigenous organizations began making regular trips to Punta Canal (now dubbed Punta Querandí), holding traditional prayer circles and paying respects to what they consider a sacred site. That is until 2007 when EIDICO began to lay the groundwork for San Marcos just meters away, and it became clear that “Punta Querandí” would be the next to go.

Alberto Aguirre, a native Toba, is one of the indigenous members of the Movement for the Pacha.In December 2008, in an attempt to attend to the concerns of residents and archeologists, EIDICO hired Daniel Loponte to lead small dig on the site that uncovered more than 10 thousand different pieces, from instruments to tools to pottery. Despite no bones having been discovered, the movement claims that the site was also once a burial ground as in many locations along the Delta human remains have been found. In an interview with Indymedia Argentina, archeologist Loponte explains that “all these sites have burial grounds. It’s rare they wouldn’t have them.”

By simply walking around the area one finds pieces of pottery in plain sight and it is clear that there is an abundance of artifacts. Member Alberto Aguirre, a native Toba, shows me around the now muddied and deforested area. He pauses and asks painfully, “How would they like it if we went to a cemetery where they have their loved ones buried and built our homes?”

Members of Movement for the Pacha aren’t satisfied with what they see as a dig of a few square meters on a two-hectare site, claiming that there are thousands more pieces to be uncovered.
“EIDICO financed the excavation so that we would stop coming here,” says Satalic. “But we keep fighting.”

Encampment ensues

On February 18th of this year the situation became elevated when EIDICO bulldozers entered Punta Canal and began ripping up trees and leveling the land. Satalic and another member of the group happened to be nearby, went immediately to the site and placed themselves in front of the machines. Soon EIDICO lawyers and police came to threaten the two with arrest.

“‘Fine, arrest me if you want,’” says Satalic recounting the day. “But the police didn’t do anything. So I said, fine, I’m leaving, and the next day we were here with tents and all.”

Now over a month into their encampment, the 100-odd members of the Movement for the Pacha take turns spending days and nights along the waterway, fearing to leave the area alone for more than a few hours.

“They are continually pressuring us by taking different measures,” says Julio Maiz, a native Colla. “They put a guard who asked to see our identification and where we were going and wouldn’t let us enter, until one day we said, ‘Look this is public space and this is a street, and you are going to have a lawsuit on your hands.’ They stopped bothering us.”

The guard, stationed at the end of Brazil street, marks the border what EIDICO hopes will become part of their developments. Only problem is, homes of locals like Sara Espinosa have been trapped inside that border. Carlos Arrambide and his family’s home is another that has been encircled. In 2008 Arrambide filed a lawsuit against EIDICO, denouncing the illegality of the sale of land on behalf of the state and managed to get two precautionary measures against the company not to further destroy the land. EIDICO however paid no mind.

A pricetag on nature

During the week the few members able to remain at the encampment watch a dredger stationed in Canal Villanueva pull mud up from the bottom of the river into its tubes and fill in the lower areas of the the site, readying the land for construction.

Member Liliana Leiva is a beekeeper from Tigre who has been working against pollution in the area with the Assembly of the Delta and Río de la Plata. She explains the environmental damage of dredging and filling, a staple method in the construction of private neighborhoods.

“The marshlands serve a very important function. They are like the kidneys of nature,” she says. She explains that the vegetation and nutrients from the marshes filter water that enters the canals from upstream, water polluted by industry and urban development. “If you fill in the marshland, they fail to carry out that function of cleaning the water.”

Discussing the process of dredging, Leiva explains that the dredgers take mud from the riverbed that is made of saltwater, which when disturbed creates a saltwater system inside one of freshwater. “They break the riverbed and break the equilibrium,” she says, and that ultimately “the beautiful indigenous vegetation will die.”

In an area that must strive to combat annual flooding, the creation of private neighborhoods on raised ground drastically impacts those left on low ground who “will suffer floods much more than before,” says Leiva.

“Since the locals are ending up in a ditch because they are raising the streets and the lands, they are hoping that the next flood, the people will grow tired and sell for 20 cents what they [EIDICO] will resell for thousands of dollars.”

Shady business

EIDICO, Emprendimientos Inmobiliarios De Interés Común or “Common Interest Real Estate Undertakings” has become known one of the largest land developers in Argentina through its tactic of selling ready lots to future residents in advance of the neighborhood’s construction that then pays the costs of development. In 2007 the company declared more than 41 projects throughout Argentina worth more than 400 million dollars, spanning from the northern province of Salta, down to Ushuaia, and even in the exclusive beach town of Punta del Este, Uruguay.

To turn a profit, land purchased by the company must come cheap. Though EIDICO has never shown deeds to the area, it has come up with a receipt. The twenty hectares purchased — of which includes Punta Canal — ran the company one million pesos, five pesos per square meter or 1.3 US dollars. Current price per square meter in the neighborhood of San Benito now under construction? Forty four dollars per square meter. That’s a staggering 3284 percent increase in value on land that many say should never have been sold in the first place.

Disturbed by the potentially illegal sale of state land in addition to the cultural and environmental destruction, national and provincial politicians have joined in the struggle. In May 2009, the Chamber of Representatives of the province of Buenos Aires solicited reports from executive powers regarding the sale of land and authorization of construction. That November the Senate of the province led by Daniel Expósito of the Coalición Civica, declared an interest in protecting the land, declaring that the State should not sell the public land belonging to the Administration of Railway Infrastructure and should work to preserve the archeological sites of aboriginal peoples.

Early this March in a press conference held by the Movement for the Pacha, national congresswoman Silvia Vázquez talked about the “dramatic social impact” of private neighborhoods in the Delta and EIDICO’s potentially illegal purchase of Punta Canal.

“It is necessary to be conscious of this violation because more than real estate value, these fiscal lands have tremendous social value and should be utilized to preserve the natural and cultural goods, and also ensure the neighbors right of passage and free access to the river,” she said.

But perhaps the more troubling still are the apparent crossovers that exist between the real estate giant and local government. A member of Opus Dei, the radically conservative sector of the Catholic Church, EIDICO owner Jorge O’Reilly has had an intimate relationship with the mayor of Tigre, Sergio Massa. According to a January 2009 article in La Nacion by Gabriel Sued, the two met in 2000 at a folklore festival in Tigre, soon after which O’Reilly asked Massa to “intervene on behalf of EIDICO regarding delays in paperwork.”

When Sergio Massa served a year as Cabinet Secretary for President Cristina Kirchner from 2008 to 2009, he called on O’Reilly to be a consultant. Additionally, EIDICO’s former director Pablo Dameno is now the current sub-secretary of urban planning of Tigre, a direct violation of the national Law of Ethics of Public Duty that forbids former business functionaries from serving on regulatory commissions of the same industry.

“The fight is unequal because we are confronting very powerful interests that have relationships to those in political power,” says Leiva. “But we know we are right.”

Road ahead

Though up against large moneyed interests, the movement holds out hope of winning protection of the site.

“We aren’t asking for all of what they bought. They can delegate these two hectares that have sufficient reasons for which to be preserved,” says Maiz. Rather than a private neighborhood, he and the other members dream of a museum to educate locals and visitors about indigenous of the region and preserve indigenous culture.

“We would try to recuperate and rescue that, and construct an open museum. Many people say that in Buenos Aires there weren’t indigenous peoples. That’s what they made up,” says Aguirre.

There is also concern for other archeological sites nearby. No more than two kilometers from Punta Canal lies Rancho Largo, a site registered by the INAPL in December of 2008 though not yet excavated. It too is owned by EIDICO and lots have already been sold for the forthcoming neighborhood San Rafael. Additionally in the neighboring community of Villa La Ñata lies a 70-hectare stretch of land for sale, under which are three excavated sites long recognized by the INAPL as La Bellaca 1, 2, and 3. Many suspect this will be EIDCO’s next conquest.

“We are trying to spread the word so that people become conscious of this, because what we are preserving is not only our history as people of the area, but for the future of the generations to come,” says Levia. “We can’t leave them a world in ruins for economic interests.”

Francesca Fiorentini is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires and an editor with Left Turn magazine. She can be reached at francesca@leftturn.org.