Mapuche vs Benetton: un-settling the land

It is crucial that Mapuche voices circulate widely, breaking both imposed silences and the image, marketed to tourists, of their land as a conflict-free wilderness. Português Español

Saskia Fischer
5 February 2017

Chubut Province. Photo by Saskia Fischer: All rights reserved.

 ‘We are fighting for the dignity of our people, to recuperate our lands and to put a stop to the continued destruction of the earth.’Isabel Huala, Pu Lof en Resistencia Departamento Cushamen (The Communities in Resistance of Cushamen Department)

During the early hours of January the 10th 2017, over 200 federal and provincial police brutally raided a rural community of the Pu Lof en Resistencia Departamento Cushamen  (The Lof Cushamen) in Argentine Patagonia. Drones, water cannon, helicopters, horses, bullets, trucks and buses accompanied them to this lof (community) of twenty or so Mapuche – who are the largest first nation in the country.

In Chubut province where the lof is they, together with the Tehuelche, live in over 100 communities, most of them rural.

On that morning, the police tear gassed, beat up and racially abused the dozen or so residents who were present, without discriminating between children, men and women. Their houses were destroyed, their horses sequestered, and three people arrested. Later that day police chased, shot at and detained seven others who had come to help the community. They were beaten and tortured while in custody. The police, claiming to have found Molotov cocktails on them, said they were acting in self-defence. In preparing for the raid, they had created a 4 kilometre exclusion zone around the lof, preventing anyone from entering the community to assist them or getting out to spread word of the repression.

The pretexts for the raid - ordered by the federal and provincial governments - was to free access to the tracks of the largely inactive narrow gauge train, La Trochita, which runs through the community’s land, as well as to pursue individuals for alleged cattle theft. The lawyer for the seven who were detained and tortured, Edgardo Manosalva, says that it was ‘materially impossible’ for them to have stolen 360 head of cattle, for which project one needs resources – in the form horses and dogs, that the community simply does not have.

State charges do not reflect the real issues at stake, as evidenced in the disproportionate use of force and the spurious cases brought against members of the community and their allies. Rather, this conflict exposes a fundamental struggle that defines Argentina - and indeed all of America, as the water defenders’ camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota, which persists despite continued repression, so powerfully shows. That is the ongoing colonisation of indigenous lands and the attempt to destroy indigenous self-determination. This struggle is an old and persistent one which, in waves, turns fierce and bloody. Many who are involved or watching the current escalation of violence in Chubut conclude that this time, ‘they came to kill.’

At around 8 p.m. on the day after the raid, as many of the community and those acting in solidarity with them were in the town of Esquel demanding the release of the detained, provincial police launched a second attack; this time without even the pretence of legal cover. Firing both live ammunition and rubber bullets, they wounded ten people, two of them seriously. They stole everything, members reported, ‘down to our cigarettes’, said one. Again, they claimed to have been attacked. As a result of this assault, two people were hospitalised; Emilio Jones, who was shot point blank in the neck with a rubber bullet, and who needs jaw reconstruction surgery, and Fausto Jones Huala, who suffered a cerebral haemorrhage amongst other injuries. Families have been fundraising to pay for Emilio’s operation. All of those held were eventually released, but legal proceedings against them continue.

‘We Mapuche continue to form a huge landless majority; our only option is to become farmhands, domestic workers or labourers, which is to say a cheap workforce exploited by the national oligarchy and transnational business.’ Pu Lof en Resistencia Departamento Cushamen, March 2015

In 2015 the Lof Cushamen, formed of several families, decided to ‘recuperate’ (as they term it), some of their ancestral lands in order to build a community. The recuperation was part of a political, economic and spiritual process of rebuilding the Mapuche nation. At the same time, as their first public statement explained, it was motivated by a refusal of their economic position as a ‘landless majority’ exploited by local or transnational capital. Legal title to the plot where they settled, on the banks of the Río Chubut where the vast Patagonian steppe begins, is claimed by a subsidiary of the Italian multinational Benetton.

With nearly 900,000 hectares, Benetton’s Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino is Argentina’s largest private landowner; in addition to sheep farming, it has mining concessions and pine plantations. Benetton bought the Compañía in 1991, during the vast sell-off of the country’s wealth to national, and especially transnational corporations. Like other companies in the region, Benetton’s might is not merely economic, but is tightly interwoven with political and judicial power. For example, Gladys Carla Rossi, wife of provincial judge José Luis Colabelli (who has ordered many evictions of Mapuche communities) works for the local Italian consulate, while Chubut’s Governor Mario Das Neves is being investigated for taking bribes from the oil company Pan American Energy.

The vast estates that Benetton now owns were originally created as gifts for the British investors who financed the genocidal ‘Conquest of the Desert’ in the 1880s. At the time, Argentina was a much more modestly sized country and the Pampas and Patagonia were still sovereign indigenous territory. The Mapuche and Tehuelche had successfully repelled attempts at invasion- first by Spain and then by Argentina and Chile. The stated aim of the military campaign was to ‘exterminate’ the indigenous peoples of the south and take their land. After the invasion, the British owners of the Compañía steadily expanded their holdings by encroaching on the neighbouring indigenous Colonia Cushamen (Cushamen Colony), which had been set up by the state. Thus survivors of the conquest were continually pushed into ever more marginal lands and, as these became new sources of profit (for example through the expansion of mining), they were again chased off the land, into the fringes of cities.

Today, they work the most precarious jobs, enduring the daily injustice of racialised poverty. Argentina projects the fantasy of a white, European country. A complex and contradictory machinery still aspires, through education, national history, the media and politics, to make this a reality. The country’s denial of its indigenous reality is particularly effective abroad: Buenos Aires is marketed as the ‘Paris of the South’. Those Mapuche who remain on the land are frequently denounced as fakes and foreigners who, unlike white settlers or multinational corporations, have no legitimate claims to land.

In a recent interview, Diego Campal, of the Jeffrey Group Public Relations Agency which represents Benetton, stated that: ‘the Mapuche arrived in the lands where these events (the Cushamen conflict) are occurring, in what is today's Argentina, at practically the same time as Argentine men.' Moreover, in the area of Cushamen, Benetton funds a museum, the Museo Leleque, that circulates the convenient fiction that the Mapuche, as recent Chilean invaders, are responsible for the near ‘extinction’ of the area’s true indigenous peoples, the docile and, in its words ‘naïve’ Tehuelche. The intensity of these annihilating energies is such that today, only 130 years after the invasion, very few speak the language, and many, out of shame and to avoid discrimination, do not identify themselves publicly as Mapuche or Tehuelche.

Yet against these pressures to disappear, the Mapuche resist, and on both sides of the Andes. During the 1990s and 2000s, a province-wide movement, the Organización de Comunidades Mapuche-Tehuelche 11 de Octubre (The 11th of October Mapuche-Tehuelche Organisation of Communities) brought rural and urban Mapuche and Mapuche-Tehuelche together in many successful struggles. Today, many of Chubut’s lof are in active conflict. These pit mostly rural communities against an assortment of state and private projects hungry for their land. For example, in the Cerro León mountain near Cushamen, there are lof struggling against plans to build a ski resort on their summer pastures. They are denounced by the media as outsiders ruining the area’s only chance for the progress and development that an environmentally devastating luxury sport is said to guarantee. It is also not the first time that Benetton has been challenged. In the early 2000s, it mobilised its mighty PR, legal and political machine against the lof of Santa Rosa Leleque, around which an international campaign grew up. After more than 10 years of struggle and Benetton-sponsored court cases, in 2014, that community finally had its title recognised by the state.

The Lof Cushamen continues this history of struggle. It declares resistance through direct action as its chosen strategy because ‘the only way to put a break to the state and economic power’s ‘planned assassination’ (via ecocide and ethnocide) is through effective territorial control by our mobilised communities.’ The lof is at the heart of a renewed movement of coordination and cooperation amongst indigenous communities in the region. And since its inception, it has suffered intimidation, repression and repeated attacks in the media. The recent raids are not the first, and they are unlikely to be the last. During the course of 2016, the provincial state, empowered by the new federal government of Mauricio Macri, mounted an increasingly shrill campaign against them and their supporters. Instead of the negotiations that the lof demands, the government broke off talks and has deployed spying, vilification in the media, harassment, prison, and the boot and bullet.

In May and June of 2016, special forces attacked and attempted to evict the community, arresting various people including its lonko or ‘head’, Facundo Jones Huala, whom they planned (but failed) to extradite to Chile for charges of damage to private property. After the latest raids, which Amnesty International strongly condemned, members of Chubut’s government called the Mapuche of the Lof Cushamen ‘terrorists’ and ‘delinquents’, and Governor Das Neves vowed to be ‘severe’ and pursue them to the ‘ultimate consequences’. At his trial, Jones Huala stated that the Mapuche were being persecuted because of their ‘political and ideological maturity’ which was ‘generating continuity in the struggles’. Although such force is not new in Chubut, and was already increasing during the Kirchner governments, its intensity is striking in times of democracy. This suggests darker days ahead, a convergence with Chile’s tactics against the Mapuche, which include the use of Pinochet’s anti-terrorist law and systematic violence. Indeed, back in 2015, the Patagonian province of Neuquén already attempted to invoke Argentina’s own anti-terrorist law against Mapuche struggles.

Argentina’s conquest is not over. As a colony, it is still settling. And as it strives to extend its control and the rule of profit, it will keep meeting indigenous resistance. All over the region, and indeed the country, capital, in myriad forms, whether hunting for metals, oil, soya or wool, is advancing against indigenous territories and rural communities. Conflicts are multiplying. In the week before the raid in Cushamen, in the nearby town of El Bolsón, over half of the population turned out to say ‘No’ to the plans of British billionaire Joseph Lewis (who has already illegally privatised a lake in the area), to destroy the headwaters of the rivers that feed the region by building an exclusive holiday resort on them.

This movement of enclosure is one that defines much of the world. Through the products that it creates and circulates, it connects up different points of the planet. Wherever there is nature to turn into resources, there are also people who must be disposed of. Keeping them quiet, isolated and friendless is a key task: neither Mapuche blood nor that of Bangladeshi workers must stain Benetton’s woollen sweaters, nor darken the brand that proclaims multicultural love. Yet the struggle of the Lof Cushamen is being watched all over Argentina, and solidarity actions have been organised there and in many other countries. In this instance, the persecution of those at the periphery reveals what’s in store for those in the centre - the lengths to which power will go. At the same time, the persistence of the lof’s members against such a colossal opponent, their courage and defiance, are evidence that in this context, all is definitely not settled. Their denouncement not only of transnational capital, but more broadly of ‘colonial and capitalist states’ and the savage destruction of the earth that they promote, should resonate broadly, showing that other ways of living are not only imaginable, but already and still exist.

Members of the Lof Cushamen are not alone, nor are they silent. Their struggle travels through a network of largely alternative publications and radio stations. These include the nearby Mapuche-community Radio Petü Mogeleiñ (Radio We are Still Living) and FM Alas in El Bolsón both of which, despite repeated threats, continue to cover these conflicts. Yet for their extremely well resourced opponents, for whom violence is simply a logical strategy, it is critical that not a single territorial recuperation be allowed to succeed, nor word of it spread. Thus it is crucial that Mapuche voices circulate widely, breaking both imposed silences and the image, marketed to tourists, of their land as a conflict-free wilderness. Through their struggle, they show us how everyday, across the world, people are organising to build a different future by creating it here in the present.

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