Argentina: Mapuches reclaim land from Benetton

On Feb. 14, six indigenous Mapuche families (about 25 people) began occupying a plot on the 534-acre Santa Rosa estate in Chubut province, in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina. The Italian clothing company Benetton claims ownership of the Santa Rosa estate. With support from many other people, indigenous and non-indigenous, the six families have begun building homes on the land. “This is not a protest, nor is it a clandestine action. We don’t intend to be owners, but rather to live as a community in our territory,” Mauro Millan, spokesperson for the families, told Tierramerica. (Inter Press Service, Feb. 27 from Tierramerica via CorpWatch; Adital, Feb. 16 from Ansalatina) “With this gesture we want to express that we all have the right to design our own future, that our action can serve as a source of inspiration, as a contribution, as an open space for the participation of those of us who are revaluing cultural diversity,” the Mapuche said in a communique on Feb. 14, the day of the occupation. (Communique from Pueblo Nacion Mapuche, Feb. 14)

The Santa Rosa farm is part of the Leleque ranch, owned by Compania de Tierras Sud Argentino (CTSA). The Mapuche families say their people had right to the land before 1889, when the Argentine government handed over 90,000 hectares of land to each of 10 British citizens and CTSA was created. Benetton acquired CTSA in 1991. Benetton is the top private landholder in Argentina, with 970,000 hectares in Patagonia alone. (IPS, Feb. 27 from Tierramerica; Adital, Brazil, Feb. 16 from Ansalatina)

“Since our people’s territory was usurped, the landowners have enjoyed impunity, protection of their assets, of their private property. Is the snow private property? Is the wind private property? Is the river private property?” asked the Mapuche in their Feb. 14 statement. (IPS, Feb. 27 from Tierramerica; Communique from Pueblo Nacion Mapuche, Feb. 14)

In mid-February, CTSA filed a claim with the Chubut attorney general’s office in Esquel, the closest city to the Santa Rosa estate. The claim charges the Mapuche families—who are calling themselves the Santa Rosa-Leleque Community—with “usurpation.” On Feb. 16 Luis Fernando Rivarola, the provincial attorney general for Esquel, visited the occupied land and carried out a site inspection. On Feb. 20, the attorney general’s office threw out the usurpation claim. “There have been no type of violent actions and/or use of threats against any person on the part of the Santa Rosa-Leleque Community, nor have there been any signs or indications that would allow for the use of force,” said the attorney general’s office. The office also noted that the occupation was not done in a “clandestine” manner, as the company had alleged. (MapuExpress, Feb. 27 via Red Solidaria por los Derechos Humanos; Derf Agencia de Noticias, Feb. 20; Diario Jornada, Chubut, Feb. 21; Diario El Oeste, Chubut, Feb. 21; Comunidad Santa Rosa-Leleque press release, Feb. 20)

The latest Mapuche occupation is not the first on the Santa Rosa estate. One of the six families now occupying the land—the family of Rosa Nahuelquir and Atilio Curinanoco—first settled on the estate in August 2002, after being told by the Argentine government that the plot was “public land.” Benetton had them evicted in October 2002. In 2004 the couple traveled to Italy, accompanied by Nobel peace laureate and human rights activist Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and met with Luciano Benetton. (IPS, Feb. 27 from Tierramerica; Adital, Feb. 16 from Ansalatina; Indian Country Today, March 5)

Months later, Benetton offered the Chubut provincial government 7,500 hectares in Piedra Parada, 200 km from the Leleque ranch, for Mapuche families to farm. The Chubut government rejected the offer because the lands were unsuitable for farming. “It’s true that it would need investment, but the land could be forested and used for raising sheep,” Paula Vazquez of the international public relations firm Burson Marsteller, retained by CTSA, told Tierramerica. (IPS, Feb. 27 from Tierramerica; communique from Pueblo Nacion Mapuche, Feb. 14)

In May 2000 Benetton opened the Leleque Museum on the ranch, theoretically in homage to the region’s indigenous peoples and pioneers. (IPS, Feb. 27 from Tierramerica) In the Feb. 14 communique, the Mapuche noted: “The ancient men and women who walked freely on this land now lie behind glass in museums; their sacred instruments are today exhibit pieces, silenced by force, trophies of a culture that destroys what is different: different ideas, philosophies, spiritualities, ideologies, peoples. Nevertheless, the footprints left by these ancient ones are inspirational. We are the consequence of those footprints. We continue to be Mapuche, and we have the responsibility and the need to reveal the historic truth.” (Indian Country Today, March 5; communique from Pueblo Nacion Mapuche, Feb. 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 11

See our last posts on Argentina and the Mapuche.