10/02/08: The reclamation of Mapuche land bought by Benetton: One year on.
This Thursday the Santa Rosa community will celebrate its first year anniversary together since reclaiming land from Benetton. Ancestral ceremonies will be performed as well as visits from three neighbouring indigenous communities, but an eviction order is also expected.
They were no more than thirty people. Those that were the most confident, as they did not want the police to get wind of what they were doing. They departed early in the morning, a determined group of old trucks and cars. The objective, to recover 534 hectares of land that the largest landowner in Argentina guarded with suspicion. With nothing more than tools to work the earth, materials to build a house and food to last a few days they set off on their journey.
On midday of the 14th of February 2007, the community of Santa Rosa-Leleque-which comprised of the old, the young and children-made there their first communal meal in this reclaimed land. ´They claim to have a paper, which they call the deeds, and with this they can call themselves the owners. We have shown our native blood, ancient owner of the land, which is our proof of possession.’ Explains Atilio Curiñanco representative and initiator-along with his wife Rosa Nahuelquir- of the conflict between the Mapuche people and the Italian impresarios Carlo and Luciano Benetton, who to this day maintain that there are no Mapuches on their estates in Argentina to the European community. A year after their return to their land, it has already been transformed into a symbol of the indigenous people’s fight, the community warns that it will resist any attempt at eviction saying, ´Though the enemy may be big and powerful, we have rights, and we demand that people respect them.’
Mid-morning in Leleque, halfway between El Bolsón and Esquel, the summer sun beats down on the earth, and hot winds blow. The road, from north to south displays the same landscape; mountains dappled with snow, foreign pines that were planted for single crop farming, wire fencing that stretches as far as the eye can see, marking territory. Everything, from right to left, belongs to Italian businessman Luciano Benetton, who in southern Argentina owns over a million hectares of land, an area 50 times the size of Buenos Aires. In the centre of this privately owned land, the Santa Rosa community returned a little over a year ago, and still remain today. ‘We only wanted to recover what was ours, although ‘Justicia Winka’ (White justice) was on the side of the powerful.´ states Atilio, whilst preparing maté for the visit.
Their hut reflects the environment; short, so as to escape the wind, a roof of metal sheets and an earthen floor. The kitchen is functional (an iron structure that acts as oven, stove and heater at the same time with the use of firewood) and occupies a corner of the living room. On the walls hang posters on indigenous fights and Mapuche-Tehuelche flags. A small window overlooks the road, 30 metres of wasteland is all that separates them from it. Trucks pass by and sound their horns; a sign of greeting, support and solidarity. Atilio lifts his arm to the window and returns the courtesy. Cars carrying tourists sometimes stop, and ask questions, some support the cause and pause for a maté. Others, of which there are few, flee horrified that the poor natives with dark skin have decided to reclaim their land from the hands of private landowners.
‘It’s a year since we’ve been here. A lot has happened: threats, frost, hardship and fear. But also the solidarity of people, whether Mapuche or not. We just want to work and live in harmony with la Mapu (land). Some understand, others just want to get rid of us. The judge threatens to evict us, his motive being money from those in power. But we will not leave.´ affirms the 56 year old in a severe gesture, a man unmistakably indigenous, a man with four sons and 10 grandchildren to protect.
Evictions, Judgments and Promises.
To return to their roots. To leave the white ´winka´way of life in favour of a life with the land, and to recover the history and culture of their ancestors. These were the objectives of Atilio and Rosa when they moved to Santa Rosa in August 2002. Unknowingly, they were pitting themselves against an empire that owns businesses in 120 countries, and has an annual turnover of 2 billion Euros. In October of the same year they experienced a violent eviction, during which their house and vegetable garden was destroyed, as well as the confiscation of animals and tools. But the conflict went to the courts, that approved the eviction, and also made media headlines: A Mapuche family was put against the Benetton corporation, an empire that pretends to have a social conscience. Two judgments were passed; one civil and one penal. In the first instance they were absolved of the crime, in the second instance it was decided that the 534 hectares belonged to the company. This land was given as an award for the support from the English; a land donation was made in 1896 by the then president José Evaristo Uribaru, to 10 English farmers, to whom he gave a total of 900 000 hectares of land. The deeds to these lands, on which the Mapuche people are situated, were acquired by The Argentinean Southern Land Company, which was later renamed as Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino, which in 1991 was bought by Edizione Holding Internacional, owned in turn by Benetton.
In 2004 at the request of Luciano Benetton, Rosa and Atilio left their puelmapu (little village) to go to Rome, where one of the head offices is situated. After several hours of discussion, Luciano promised to donate 2500 hectares of Argentinean land in order to restore the relationship between the land and the people that live on it. ‘First he spoke about donating land. We made it clear to him that this would not be the case. Nobody can donate something that doesn’t belong to him. We argued that it had to be restitution or return. He then proposed to donate the land to the argentine government who would then restore the land to us.’ Explained Atilio on his return from Europe. In the meeting the couple remarked on another thing: that the Leleque Museum-a tourist attraction created by Benetton which is situated only 7 km from the community of Santa Rosa- was an offense to the indigenous communities that lived there as it refuses to acknowledge the existence of Mapuche people living there now, and portrayed the idea that indigenous people no longer lived there.
In 2005 The Chubut provincial government decided that the 2500 hectares of land donated by Luciano Benetton were not to be accepted, because they deemed the land uninhabitable. ‘Benetton is a cheat’, affirmed Atilio at the time. At the same time they warned that old indigenous and country communities were already living on the land, and that in no way did they want to start a conflict with them. Benetton has never brought the matter up again. In Italy he and his companies have turned a blind eye to the continual demonstrations against his actions towards the Mapuche people. Luciano Benetton has always maintained the same standpoint; that he bought the land in good faith and that there were no Mapuches living on his land.
Returning to Their Roots.
‘I’m 56 years old. I have worked for 15 different companies, and each one exploited me.’ Relates Atilio in summarising his work experience. A sullen man, of average stature, he ponders over each phrase, with a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief. Five years of conflict, with the masses of interviews, demonstrations and speeches he has done, have no doubt improved his discourse, he speaks assuredly, with the intention of highlighting the reality of the indigenous community on a global scale. In doing this, he has strengthened his ties with his Mapuche identity and feels a part of the whole history, ‘Since our youth we have been discriminated against. For example, at school we were never allowed to speak our language, it was considered a dirty language. All the time they wanted to eliminate our own culture.’
Atilio stayed at school until seventh grade. Then, as the poor are required to, he left studies to those who can afford it and concentrated on putting food on the table. He got to know various types of work, becoming a jack of all trades; working rurally and elsewhere. The jobs tended to be short term, and he worked 16 hour days to make ends meet; whether constructing gas lines or building other people’s houses, all the time having to drag his family from one place to another, becoming a nomadic worker. After the eviction in 2002, along with the judgments and the false promises, the wounds ran deep. However the decision remained unchanged; to return to their roots, to a life put on hold in Santa Rosa. This is somewhere where Atilio grew up with his grandparents, somewhere that is sacred to him. In collaboration with the Mapuche Tehuelche organisation ’11 de Octubre’ a representative of the indigenous fight in Chubut, they returned on the 14th of February. ‘Our culture asks that we return to our roots, our relationship with the Mapu (earth) may disappear after a time, but it always remains inside us, it is the strongest relationship that we have.’ He patiently explains.
On the same day of the return, the Benetton lawyers put forward another lawsuit against them. This time the complaint fell into the hands of Judge Claudio Alejandro Petri, known in the province for his strict (and just) rulings, elusive to the pressures of large corperations, large landowners and political power. Perhaps for these reasons, Benetton challenged the judge’s ruling (In Chubut you can challenge a judge’s ruling without giving a reason for doing so) and the complaint passed into the hands of Omar Magallanes, who worked in the court of ‘execution of promissory notes, inheritances and estates’. In these tribunals of Esquel there is a lack of competence, and the indigenous rights tend to be ignored.
Nevertheless last autumn, Magallanes passed an order prohibiting the Santa Rosa community from making any change in the landscape. He impeded them from doing anything, even from cutting wood and creating fires, despite the Patagonian winter. A meeting of the Santa Rosa community decided that the ruling would not be obeyed, ‘Following the ruling of the judge would have led us to our deaths’ they exclaim. They made fires to cook and fight off the cold as well as corrals for their animals and small vegetable gardens.
In remembering the ruling Atilio becomes indignant. But putting down his mate he invites me to survey the improvements that have been made in the past year despite it; potatoes, onions, lettuce, peas, pumpkin and corn are growing here. With pieces of plastic he has constructed a small greenhouse that grows tomatoes, beets and oregano. He recounts that it has been knocked down twice by fierce winds but that each time he has rebuilt it. He proudly displays months of work; The trees that are starting to bear fruit, and the Alamos that promise to provide shade and shelter in the years to come.
On the 28th of January, the judge returned with police. He ordered that a record be made of all the improvements. Clerks came to Santa Rosa and made a note of all the changes. What is considered an achievement for the community here, is considered a crime by the courts. Next week, the judge will meet with all parties involved, and the lawyers of Benetton will be able to call for a lawsuit to be put forward under ‘disobedience of ruling’, penalising profits from work done, and establishing another eviction notice. Atilio Rosa and the other thirty inhabitants of Santa Rosa explain that what they did was of utmost necessity, ‘We weren’t going to let ourselves die, nor were we going to leave our land,’ repeats Atilio, in a firm voice, though he is worried as to what may happen.
Next Thursday, 14th of February, the Santa Rosa community will be holding a ‘rogativa’ (ceremonial ritual). They will be commemorating the first anniversary of their recovery of Santa Rosa, they will thank the Mapu (land) for the last twelve months here, and they will ask for strength for what may come. Communities from Chubut, Neuquén and Río Negro will participate. The Mapuche and Tehuelche will confirm their attendance, their support and their assistance for whatever may happen with the evictions. In contrast, a few metres from their community, the Leleque Museum, created by the Benetton company, continues to deny the existence of Mapuches in these parts.