Historical Background: the unfair seizure of lands in Patagonia
Downloadable file of the timeline with the most relevant facts related to the Santa Rosa Community land struggle, since October 1882 to June 2009.
By H. Amen y C. Groleau. Copyleft
Land takeovers labeled as “grants”
October 18, 1884, the last battle of the Campaña del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert), a military campaign organized by the Argentinean government to “exterminate the Indian savages and barbarians of the Pampas and Patagonia” took place. Territorial control of the current province of Neuquén up to the Limay River, and later of Chubut province, came about because of this battle. Months later, the rebel leaders Inacayal and Foyel were apprehended in Chubut province.
In 1896, President José Evaristo Uriburu (1895-1898) gave away 900,000 hectares, divided among ten farmsteads of about 90,000 hectares each — some of them 86,000, others 91,000, others 92,000, and others 96,000. He handed over the land deeds to ten English citizens in the presence of a public notary from the state capital, who despite being a public notary did not have the authority to do this.
It is not clear how a president could have the audacity to do this: to give away in one day such a vast number of hectares to only ten people, who in turn took over this enormous area, an area where many families could live today. It’s not clear what justification Uriburu used when he ignored the land legislation of that time, whose objective was to populate the area, by introducing great numbers of families, each with many small properties; families who were economically self-sufficient. Uriburu’s land grants happened in spite of the fact that the accumulation of several lots in the hands of one person was expressly prohibited by the legislation, and punishable by the termination of the land grant in question.
The legislation in force at that time, the Law of Lands 1265 (sales of land) and Law 1501 (Law of the Home), which governed the land donations, established that:
- The chief secretary of the government must complete the grants — as he is the only person authorized to realize those deeds — rather than a public notary lacking the power to complete this kind of action.
- An individual or a corporation could neither buy an area of land larger than 40,000 hectares, nor purchase two land lots. Moreover, sales were required to be conducted in public auctions with a minimum starting bid.
- Land donations were limited to areas of a quarter-league, or 625 hectares, at maximum. (It was the same law — Law 1501, the Law of the Home — that regulated the creation of the Cushamen Mapuche reservation, which is, rightly, a 625-hectare lot of land.)
The heading of the 1896 deed begins: “The president of the Nation cedes, sells and transfers”… and describes every one of the farmsteads. Among them are the Leleque farmstead, El Maitén, El Lepa, and more. Seven of the farmsteads are in Chubut province, totaling 630,000 hectares; two are in Neuquén; and one is in Río Negro. The deed later states: “…acknowledging the improvements previously introduced, the decision is made to donate these lands.” Upon reading this, one asks, what improvements did President Uriburu take into account when making this grand gesture to ten English citizens who were not actually known to us? The deed must refer to improvements already introduced in 1896, as until now the majority of those farmsteads have made no improvements.
Most likely, this illicit land grant, based on nonexistent improvements, was simply a way to return a favor: the financing of the militia during the Campaña del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert). Thousands of Mapuche were murdered or apprehended during the Campaña del Desierto in order to free the territory for exploitation by European investors.
These government lands, according to what had been established in the Law of Immigration, were bound for the establishment of colonies and the arrival of some minor landowners from Europe. But they were distributed among a few families with close links to those in power who had paid nominal sums for the land — or, more accurately — who had received the lands as gifts.
Southern Argentinean Land Company, Ltd.: a fictitious company
Later, according to what is contained in a blurry photocopy of the supposed title of property, there took place a land transfer to a Southern Argentinean Land Company representative. Neither in 1896 nor now are we aware of who created this company… probably because it doesn’t exist. There is no proof catalogued in the Registry of Corporations, nor in the Inspección General de Justicia (the government agency that regulates corporations), of what this company is. Its registration is listed only in the Public Commerce Registry. The company does not exist in Chubut province, as no registered organization can be found.
A company that holds 630,000 hectares in the province, that has both capital and more than a hundred-year history in the business of making farm liquidations, purchases and sales, exports and imports... how could it be possible that it is not registered, that it could act with that freedom, with a carte blanche?
Termination of any granting of lands due to speculation
The Law of Lands in effect in 1896 demanded that lands given through grants would be worked, and declared obsolete a land grant in the event that it had been acquired under speculative circumstances.
What could be more speculative than to acquire land only to transfer it shortly thereafter? Ten people who acquire ten properties, and then transfer them to a company formed in England — a corporation established for acquiring and exploiting Patagonian lands- land they received as gifts. It is not difficult to be suspicious of this, to reach the conclusion that this company was in fact begun for nothing more than to receive those 900,000 hectares.
How can one be the owner of land that after 110 years is undefined in the number of hectares it contains?
The certificates of the Property Register of Chubut province — one for the farmstead called Leleque, made up of 96,000 hectares, and the other for the farmstead called Lepa, of about 85,000 hectacres — indicates: “Ownership: to belong to the Southern Argentinean Land Corporation … Comments: subject to measurement.”
This means that neither the Leleque farmstead, nor the Lepa farmstead, probably none of the farms of the Southern Argentinean Land Company, had measurements taken of their property. In 1896 after the donation of a property it was usually fenced in and measured by the owner, but the measurements from back then are insufficient for the system that we have today. Only a perimetric measurement certifies that the land inside the fence is equal to the area of land listed in the deed.
The Southern Argentinean Land Company is obligated to take this measurement… but it is quite likely that it will never happen. Why? Because there is no single organization here in the province demanding that the company take measurements of the lands in each of the ten properties that it has, or even of the seven that are in the Chubut province. In 110 years it has never happened.
If measurements of the farmstead boundaries of the Southern Argentinean Land Company came up with extra land, that land would not belong to the company but to the state; they would be government lands. Provincial Law 3765, the Law of Lands, expressly prohibits corporations or companies in which the shareholders are unknown to be the titleholders of government lands.
Maps exist that reflect different chronological stages during the time of the Lepa Colony, including an old map that appears in a book edited by Benetton, “Leleque: 13,000 years of History.” In these maps, one can see how the farmsteads were constantly growing… in each map a new square appears.
The guaranteed social aim of land in the Provincial Constitution
It is worth adding that the Law of Lands 3765, currently in effect, establishes not only the basis for a Commission of Indigenous Lands, but also the possibility that the state would expropriate lands in order to hand them over to indigenous peoples, or in order to lay out other social purposes for the land.
Article 100 of the Provincial Constitution guarantees the social purpose for the land. The land must be a source of social development — from now into the future: “ARTICLE 100: The land is a permanent source of production and development. It fulfills a social purpose. The law guarantees its preservation and recuperation, in order to prevent the loss of fertility and erosion, and regulating the use of agricultural technologies applied.”
It’s unnecessary to point out that the kind of land ownership appropriated by this company is not the kind of land ownership decreed in our Constitution. Benetton, with its 900,000 hectares, does not fulfill a social purpose … it is not even known who benefits, nor who the landowners really are.
How did the Benetton Group acquire these lands
|May 1889||The Southern Argentinean Land Company, Ltd., is founded in London and operates in Argentina as a foreign company.|
|1896||Donation by President Uriburu of 900,000 hectares to ten English citizens and later transfer of these lands to the Southern Argentinean Land Company, Ltd.|
|July 1975||Argentinean investors buy a block of shares in the Southern Argentinean Land Company, Ltd.|
|May 1982||The company is nationalized, modifying its name to the Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino S.A.|
|August 1991||The block of shares of the Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino S.A., is bought by Edizione Holding International N.V., property of Benetton.|
“Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino S.A., is a company dedicated since 1889 to agricultural production in different localities in the country. Until 1975 it operated as a foreign company based on English capital, until it was sold to a group of Argentinean investors. The nationalization of the corporation took place only recently, in 1982, setting it up from that moment on as an Argentinean-held, publicly traded corporation.
The Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino S.A., was acquired by Edizione Real Estate — a company belonging to the Benetton family — in the year 1991, an investment that subsequently joined other land acquisitions in Santa Cruz province, Buenos Aires, and Río Negro, totaling the 900,000 hectares that the company presently counts.” This is how the company’s Web site sets the record.
Mapuche territory recovered – Historical Amends
This piece of land, now recovered, has turned into an example of struggle and resistance, through which the winds of change and equality blow. What happened in 2002 will not be permitted to happen again: a family, working diligently, planting and building, giving the land the social purpose that it has always been destined to have, were brutally evicted in favor of a fictitious company, in an act of total oppression.
The land was refused to this family, a century-old injustice in which, oddly, the native people seem to be the foreigners. The family was refused the possibility for self-determined development, to have hope and a new chapter in life. But Santa Rosa is recovered Mapuche territory in which there is no place for capitalist speculation.
The Mapuche people demand the respect of their rights as a people and the restitution of their lands. They reclaim their right to live in the lands of their ancestors, land that by natural and historical right belongs to them. It is a right that was never renounced and never will be renounced.
Their demands are framed within international law and national legislation.
The foundations of their proposals are based on the following points:
- Benetton does not observe the resolutions contained in the European Union Code of Conduct regarding the operations of European companies that invest in developing countries (Resolution 15/11/99);
- The forced removal of the Mapuche from their ancestral lands goes against Article 75, Section 17 of the National Constitution of Argentina of 1853/1994, which: “...recognizes the ethnic and cultural preexistence of the indigenous peoples and their possession and community ownership of the lands that they traditionally occupy; and it regulates the handover of other lands able and capable of humane development; none of them will be alienable, transmissible nor susceptible to taxes or seizure”;
- Depriving the Mapuche communities of their economic subsistence violates Articles 14 and 17 of Law 24.071, which ratifies Agreement 169 of the ILO (International Labor Organization) regarding indigenous communities, in which the states agree to recognize in the indigenous communities the right to ownership and possession of the lands that they traditionally occupy, that “it is necessary to take measures to safeguard the right of indigenous communities to use lands that they may not exclusively occupy, but those to which they have traditionally had access to for their traditional activities and livelihood”. 
1- Text taken and adapted from the transcription of the Argument of Dr. Gustavo Macayo (in Spanish)
2- Wikipedia en español (in Spanish)
3- The Land is Ours – Newsletter 23
4- Felipe Pigna, The Conquest of the Desert (in Spanish)
5- Table—adapted and extended—from the FARN Report
6- Web site of the Compañía de Tierras del Sud Argentino S.A. (in Spanish)
7- Excluded Mapuches of the “united colors” (in Spanish)