By Anna Banchik
The Bosque Impenetrable, the Impenetrable Forest, in Argentina is criss-crossed with dirt roads and thick vegetation. The same conditions held centuries ago when Spanish settlers wrote about the native people of this inhospitable terrain: they were the fierce Toba.
Indigenous Presence in Argentina
Today the Toba are still found here, but their population of 18,000 has been ravaged by hunger, neglect, and exploitation. Their story is one of several indigenous peoples of Argentina, a country whose small percentage (3-5%) of native communities creates an even more difficult climate to vocalize their grievances and wishes, maintain their language and customs. In fact, although the indigenous population accounts for 17-25% of the population in some provinces, many Argentinians think that indigenous peoples have died out or assimilated, unaware of their existence in the country (IWGIA). At the same time, essentializing stereotypes still mar the “Indians/indigenous” as savage, ignorant, lazy, and idle everyday language. As Cleary bluntly points out in Mobilizing for Human Rights in Latin America, “Latin America was a deeply racist society.” The composition of indigenous peoples in the country is as follows:
Northeast Region: provinces of Chaco, Entre Ríos, Formosa, Misiones, Santa Fe, Santiago del Estero. Peoples: Charrúa, Lule, Mbya-Guaraní, Mocoví, Pilagá, Toba, Tonocoté, Vilela, Wichí.
Northwest Region: provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy, La Rioja, Salta, San Juan, Santiago del Estero, Tucumán. Peoples: Atacama, Avá-Guaraní, Chané, Chorote, Chulupí, Diaguita-Calchaquí, Kolla, Ocloya, Omaguaca, Tapiete, Toba, Tupí-Guaraní, Wichí.
Southern Region: provinces of Chubut, Neuquén, Santa Cruz, Tierra del Fuego. Peoples: Mapuche, Ona, Tehuelche, Yamana.
Central Region: Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, La Pampa, Mendoza. Peoples: Atacama, Avá Guaraní, Diaguita-Calchaquí, Huarpe, Kolla, Mapuche, Rankulche, Toba, Tupí Guaraní, Comechingon.
A survey in 2001 to count the number of households with at least one inhabitant who self-identifies as an indigenous person or a descendant of one was later challenged by indigenous people because they had not participated in its design. Consequently, a more participatory Complementary Indigenous Survey was undertaken three in 2004. The results, so far, are featured below:
PEOPLE, PROVINCE, HOUSEHOLDS
Mapuche Chubut, Neuquén, Rio Negro and Tierra del Fuego 76,606
Kolla Jujuy and Salta 53,019
Toba Chaco, Formosa and Santa Fe 47,591
Wichí Chaco, Formosa and Salta 36,135
Ava Guarani; Guarani; Tupi Guarani Jujuy and Salta 29,703
Ava Guarani; Guarani; Tupi; Guarini Buenos Aires and the 24 administrative districts of Greater Buenos Aires 20,340
Toba; Buenos Aires and the 24 administrative districts of Greater Buenos Aires 14,456
Diaguita Calchaqui; Jujuy, Salta and Tucuman 13,773
Huarpe; Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis 12,704
Over the course of several decades, indigenous peoples were incorporated into Argentina as ‘subjugated peoples and insecure occupiers’ of their own lands and forced to leave behind their religions, cultures, and ways of life. The globalization of agriculture has compounded their plight, exhausted soils and placed more territory into the hands of large landowners.
Land theft, Neglect, Environmental destruction and contamination
Large-scale felling of native forest by external expropriators and logging companies in the central-west Chaco region, which has the highest percentage of indigenous peoples, has caused soil impoverishment, desertification, loss of biodiversity. Such disturbances affect flora, fauna, and many of the ecosystems which sustain life for these hunting and gathering communities. Furthermore, state lands are sold by local governments to businessmen who level them and establish farms. Even Greenpeace has warned of the massive deforestation occurring in the region. At the same time, soya production is replacing the traditional cultivation of cotton, which used to provide seasonal work for the Toba. Moreover, these hunter gatherers are beginning to roam the region for places to harvest.
Roland Nunez accuses local and national authorities of neglect and the manipulation of figures to underestimate the severity of the situation. Mr. Nunez runs the Nelson Mandela Centre, which distributes food to communities like the Toba who reside deep in the forest. Nunez says the authorities are committing nothing short of ‘gradual genocide.’
In the central-southern region, other communities are ravaged by ‘permanent invasion,’ land theft, and frequent, nightly ‘fence-moves.’ Similarly to the Chaco region, local governments sell state lands, occasionally even with indigenous peoples still living on them! The possibility of recovering this land is lessened still by multinational agroindustries in Patagonia putting pressure on small producers for their ranches and estates, a future that would unlikely provide much employment for these communities. Moreover, state development plans reform land usage of indigenous territories without the consultation of its inhabitants.
In addition to these changes in territorial holdings is the contamination of the areas themselves. A Canadian documentary on the city of Tambogrande emphasized the threat of the mining industry to local culture and health. The implications of these risks are tragically experienced in Argentina. The Pilcomayo River, a source of fish and a critical riparian ecosystem, is highly contaminated with metals, including mercury, from spills in neighboring countries (IWGIA). Oil contamination, and the introduction of hydrocarbons into the water table, is also a serious problem preventing water usage and exposing indigenous people to unacceptable blood levels of lead and mercury.
Loss of religion and language
As far as religious practices are concerned, indigenous people still maintain their ancestral beliefs despite pressures from historic and current evangelizing groups to convert to a foreign religion. Some communities like the Toba have adopted hybrid religions with other faiths and continue their practice today. Many indigenous peoples speak their own languages, which some degree of monolingualism. Of those that have migrated to cities, a large percentage has lost their mother tongue and has, thus, been unable to teach their children their native language. Intercultural and bilingual education is promised by the government though no real widespread efforts of this promotion have been successful. This colors a bleak future for indigenous children who will have great obstacles in their lifetime, if they can survive poverty, malnutrition, tuberculosis, and diseases like Chagas which are caused by parasitic insects. In the picture below, indigenous Guarani children of northeast Argentina perform “Welcome to our Village” for participants of an international studies abroad program sponsored by Luther College by the University of Belgrano, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Note the wooden hut in the background: many indigenous communities live in such structures built of natural materials like wood and mud which exacerbates their vulnerability to ecosystem disturbance.
Robbed of their lands, neglected by the government, and exploited by external investors, these children will need to struggle more than ever for their livelihoods. Despite these challenges, the indigenous people of Argentina are still finding ways to preserve their cultures and communities.
Most Indigenous communities in Argentina employ sophisticated organizational leadership, each differing in their elections and obligations of authority figures. Aided by a commission or council, these competent leaders or ‘caciques’ in Spanish (but niyat, lonko, mburuvicha, etc. in their respective languages), like the woman pictured above, analyze important issues affecting their communities. Wider networks, like the Guaraní People’s Assembly in Jujuy province and the Lhaka Honat Association of Native Communities which includes 43 communities from the Salta Chaco, may be established through forming associations and assemblies composed of grassroots representatives (IWGIA). There are even urban and suburban associations for migrated populations, including the Toba People’s Council in Buenos Aires. Although Cleary’s chapter on the resurgence of Indigenous Rights highlights the efforts of faith groups and external sources, Argentina’s relatively small population of indigenous people does not make it a priority target for such aid groups.
Other organizations are created for one express purpose such as media representation and advocacy, the defense of rights, self help, etc. While other Latin American countries have one organization representing all indigenous interests, such an organization does not yet exist in Argentina despite some proposals to do so and the existence of some previously formed groups such as the Indigenous Association of the Argentine Republic (founded in 1965). Nevertheless, this absence does not seem to have been a challenge to mobilizing efforts to promote cultural, political, and economic interests. The 1990s saw many successes in the form of constitutional changes, but today they are still continuing their struggle for a long list of shared aspirations such as the titling of lands, legitimate recognition, and the preservation of their cultural identity.
In this video, the Wichí community near Tartagal in the province of Salta (where my parents are from!) band together against invading companies, ready to fight literally to the death. The video, which draws many similarities to the Tambogrande film, paints their way of life and the unquestionable destruction brought on my these nameless forces. Their passion to preserve their lands, albeit heroic, reveals an alarming desperation to protect the injustices by on their people.
Cleary, Edward L. Mobilizing for Human Rights in Latin America. Kumarian Press, 2007. 53. Print.
"Indigenous Peoples in Argentina." International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. IWGIA, n.d. Web. 28 Jul 2010.
Schweimler, Daniel. "Argentina's Forest People Suffer Neglect." BBC News 27 Sep 2007: n. pag. Web. 28 Jul 2010.
Tambogrande: Mangoes, Murder, Mining