democraciaAbierta: Feature

Patagonia is burning: the politics of fire

In Argentina, suspected arson is destroying land that Indigenous communities have long protected from miners and developers

Saskia Fischer Manuela Zechner
24 March 2021, 3.13pm
Scorched ground after fires tore though Patagonia, destroying Indigenous land, on 10 March
Martinez Marcelo/dpa/Alamy Live News

Patagonia is burning. On 10 March, six fires broke out within a space of just two hours, kilometres apart, across Argentina’s Comarca Andina – a region of plains and mountains bordering Rio Negro and Chubut provinces.

These fires follow those that burned across the region in late January. Numerous towns and villages in both provinces have been razed to the ground, and thousands of hectares of forest have burned.

The map of the fires is fast-changing. They are spreading rapidly thanks to strong winds, drought, state incompetence and the vast plantations of highly flammable exotic pine which mark the region. A few thousand people, many of them small-scale farmers and rural workers, have lost their homes, their workplaces, animals and fields. Two people have so far died and many more are still missing. The area’s complex ecosystem of forests and steppe has been profoundly damaged and it will take years for it to be restored.

Sixto Garcés Liempe, a Mapuche rural worker, was the first person to die. Local authorities did not put out a search party when he went missing. Instead, it was members of the neighbouring Cañio Mapuche community or lof who found him. In the past days, community members have repeatedly asked the municipality for help as the fires advance towards their homes in Cerro León, yet, as they said in a statement, no help has been forthcoming.

Charred cars at a workshop in Patagonia that was destroyed by the fires on 10 March
Martinez Marcelo/dpa / Alamy

The Cañio have always had to rely on their own and their neighbours’ support and resources, as the municipality of El Maitén has a long history of refusing to serve them, despite its obligation to do so. About ten years ago, the municipality's neglect turned into a more active form of hostility, as it pushed ahead with plans to build a ski resort on the lof’s summer pastures, despite the Cañio’s objections, and in violation of their right to self-determination as a recognised Indigenous community.

One of the developers’ first attacks was the cutting down of a swathe of native forest on Cerro León. In the face of intense intimidation, harassment and racist abuse from the local authorities, media and the province, the lof Cañio continues to resist, accompanied by the local Mapuche-Argentine radio station, Radio Petü Mogeleiñ, which has a long history of supporting Indigenous – and other – struggles in the area. The Cañio have so far succeeded in preventing the project. But today, the mountains around their territory are in flames.

Contested territory

The Comarca is a region of stunning beauty, in which still pristine rivers cross the lush foothills of the Andes into the open plains of the Patagonian steppe. It is, unsurprisingly, home to varied types of tourism, including environmentally devastating forms of luxury tourism and land speculation, such as skiing. Billionaires from around the world have bought up mountain tops, access to bodies of water and the nascent of rivers.

The region is also contested territory, one of the fronts in Argentina’s ongoing settler-colonial war against its many indigenous peoples. Keeping the flames of colonial vitriol alive, numerous local politicians and their collaborators in some of the country’s biggest newspapers, notably Clarin, are today accusing the Mapuche of starting the fires.

The perversity of such a claim was denounced in a statement by neighbouring Rio Negro’s Coordinating Committee of the Mapuche Parliament, who stressed that “we as the Mapuche Tehuelche people are the ones making the greatest effort to protect the land from the developers’ greed which comes after the fires (...) and who defend territory against the extractivist claws of mining, hydroelectric and forest companies.”

Keeping the flames of colonial vitriol alive, politicians and newspapers accuse the Mapuche of starting the fires

Meanwhile, social movements and people on social media are demanding accountability and justice as they organise basic aid on the ground. As local environmental activist Pablo Palicio Lada says on Twitter: “All fire is political. Apart from the strong suspicion of intentionality, it’s the apathy of a useless government that only thinks about setting up mega-mining while keeping the province in conditions of abject poverty.”

Mining companies with an interest in the Chubut plateau have long been lobbying to have mining bans and environmental protections lifted. Hundreds of planned exploration and exploitation sites would yield huge profits to corporations and political profiteers, whilst poisoning the Chubut river with its drinking water, and destroying the precious Patagonian habitats.

In recent years, the powerful decades-long struggle against mining has taken on new momentum. Organised local communities have been vocal in saying #NoalaMegamineria (‘No to Mega Mining’) to Canadian mining companies such as Pan American Silver, Yamana Gold and El Dorado Gold. The campaign No a la Mina Esquel (‘No to Mining- Esquel’) led the first popular referendum against mining in the world back in 2003 – in which 81% of the local population rejected gold and silver mining in the area – a model later replicated in many other countries. Meanwhile, mining and real estate corporations have kept pushing for mining bans to be lifted, leading to powerful resistance by locals.

More recently, on 3 March, the province was set to vote on the zoning of the mining projects. But the day of the vote saw such massive mobilisations of people across the region – with an environmental strike, road blockades and masses of people outside the provincial legislature – that it ended up being adjourned until 16 March. Barely a week later, the whole area is in flames.

Not just homes, but also places and means of production, have been destroyed in the Patagonian fires
Martinez Marcelo/dpa/Alamy Live News

The struggle intensifies

It is widely suspected that the fires were the result of arson, not chance, and that those ultimately responsible for them will not be brought to justice. If one juxtaposes the map of the fires with a map of projected mining exploration and exploitation zones, there appears to be much overlap between the two. No matter who turns out to have started the fires, it’s clear they create unfavorable conditions for those living in the region. It’s not just homes, but also places and means of production, that have been destroyed, and the pro-mining argument of job creation will likely resurface, as will the call for dropping both environmental land-protection laws and violating Indigenous territorial rights.

It is not just the Comarca that is burning. In recent weeks, fires have also been lit further south in Chubut. Moira Millan, spokeswoman for El Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas por el Buen Vivir (Movement of Indigenous Women for Buen Vivir), said fires are also raging in the area of Corcovado, near the lof Pillan Mahuiza. This particular blaze happens only to be consuming the section of national park that is planned as the site for the first in a series of locally contested dams that would make up the mega-hydroelectric project, La Elena.

The struggle continues, it won’t be put out with the fires

Of the accusations that three unnamed Mapuche suspects started the fires in the Comarca, Millan said the media and government functionaries “always try to deflect attention, frame us [the Mapuche] as an internal enemy in order to militarise everything so that things to end up like they are in Temuco [in Chile, where Mapuche resistance is regularly and brutally repressed].” She adds that starting on 14 March, the movement is leading a caravan from Corcovado to Buenos Aires to bring attention to the fight against Terricidio (terricide), the grabbing and destruction of territory, building on the one they organised last year.

#BastaDeTerricidio (‘Stop the Terricide’) is a slogan that points to how struggles for Indigenous rights, community self-determination, care of the land, habitat protection and climate justice are inextricably linked, as capitalism pushes at the last frontiers of our common world(s). Whether for mines, dams or tourist resorts, the use of scorched-earth tactics is a sign that the struggle for a just relation amongst humans and with nature is intensifying.

In Patagonia, as in many other parts of Latin America, Indigenous peoples are often those who bear the greatest brunt of the violence of extractivism. They are also those articulating and fighting for paths out of the state we are in. La lucha sigue, no se apague con los fuegos… ‘the struggle continues, it won’t be put out with the fires.

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