Argentina: indigenous activists fast for land rights

As of May 23 negotiations were continuing between the Argentine federal government and representatives of the indigenous Qom community of the Toba ethnic group over disputed land in the northern province of Formosa. The government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner finally agreed to negotiate seriously on May 2 after 16 Qom community members started an open-ended hunger strike in Buenos Aires and well-known activists like Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, 1980 Nobel peace prize winner, took up the cause.

The dispute centers on 600 hectares of some 5,000 hectares that the federal government ceded to the Qom community in 1940. Some of the community’s land was later given to an individual, Rosario Celia, and another part was incorporated into the Río Pilcomayo National Park in 1951. In 2007 Formosa province received some of Celia’s land to use for building the National University of Formosa. Part of the land was claimed by the Qom community, but provincial governor Gildo Insfrán seized 600 hectares for the university and evicted nine Qom families who had been living there.

After making a number of claims to the land, in July 2010 the community decided to protest by blocking National Highway 86. On Nov. 23 the provincial police mounted an operation to remove the protesters by force. One community member, Roberto Lopez, died, allegedly from police bullets, and 35 people were arrested. Another protester died a few days later in what the community considers a suspicious accident.

Following the attack, some 70 community members went to Buenos Aires to demand that President Fernández intercede with Gov. Insfrán, who is a political ally. They set up a camp at a downtown intersection and stayed there for five months asking for talks with the government. On April 25 the protesters started their hunger strike and announced plans for partial blockages of July 9 Avenue. These actions, along with plans for a May 2 press conference with Pérez Esquivel, apparently forced Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo to start a round of negotiations with the community.

“Did it have to come to this?” Pérez Esquivel asked while he visited the encampment in May. “Setting up a camp? The hunger strike? Blocking the avenue? What does this mean? It took so much time just to have a meeting with the authorities?” (Underreported Struggles, April 2011; Comambiental, Buenos Aires, May 23)

A number of indigenous groups have been pushing for land in Argentina’s northern provinces. Another Toba group was part of a three-month indigenous protest the summer of 2006 in Chaco province, resulting in an agreement with the provincial government that included a pledge to issue land titles to 140,000 hectares of land to indigenous people. In Tucumán province more than 600 protesters from 15 indigenous communities marched in the provincial capital on June 1 of this year to protest evictions and other repressive acts against them as they try to defend their rights. The march was sponsored by the Union of the Nation of the Diaguita People and the Lule People. (Adital, Brazil, June 1; Tucumán a las 7, Tucumán, June 1, from ContraPunto-Prensa Alternativa; Unión de los Pueblos de la Nación Diaguita website, June 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 5.

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