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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Indigenous Conflicts over Land Spread, Fueling Debate in Argentina

By Daniel Gutman

Photo of an assembly of members of the Lhaka Honhat indigenous association in the province of Salta, in northern Argentina. Their claim to their ancestral territory has been recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but they have not yet gained exclusive use of their land. CREDIT: Courtesy of CELS

In 1994 Argentina recognized in the constitution the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous peoples. However, enforcement of respect for their rights has fallen short and almost 30 years later the question of land is generating growing conflicts, which sometimes pit native communities against the rest of society.

On Feb. 5, a long convoy of some 500 vehicles driven by agricultural producers drove through the midwest province of Mendoza to defend “the sovereignty of our lands and private property” against growing and increasingly visible claims by indigenous people to their ancestral lands.

The demonstrators said that they do not want the same thing to happen in Mendoza as in the southern province of Río Negro, where there have been various violent incidents in recent years, which peaked in September 2022, when a group of indigenous people claiming their ancestral territory set fire to a National Gendarmerie mobile booth.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country’s indigenous communities are still waiting for community property title to the lands they have ancestrally lived on, which they point to as the key to access other rights that have remained empty words in the constitution, such as participation in the management of their natural resources.

“There is no political will to resolve this issue, because there are very powerful interests in the oil, mining, or agricultural industries that oppose it,” Silvina Ramírez, a member of the Association of Indigenous Rights Lawyers (AADI) and professor of graduate studies at the University of Buenos Aires, told IPS.

“This has been aggravated because there is a communication campaign trying to spread the idea that indigenous people want to prevent progress and are the enemy,” she added.

On the other side, Andrés Vavrik, a cattle producer from Mendoza and one of the organizers of the demonstration there, told IPS: “No one is against indigenous peoples, but we are concerned that the national government recognizes the right to territory of anyone who self-identifies as indigenous, because there we enter a very debatable terrain.”

“We came out to defend private property,” he said from the town of General Alvear in Mendoza.

A leading role in the march was played by a group of veterans of the Malvinas/Falklands Islands War, which Argentina lost in 1982 against the United Kingdom, which occupied the South Atlantic islands 190 years ago.

The reaction came after the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI), the official body in charge of the study and delimitation of indigenous territories, recognized the rights of native communities to over 21,500 hectares of land in Mendoza.

Although the INAI clarified that its resolution “does not imply in any way the restitution or handing over of land,” since the agency does not have that power, the Mendoza government objected to the decision before the Supreme Court.

Land emergency

Argentina is a country that formally promoted European immigration and the exclusion of indigenous people since it became a unified nation in 1853.

In the 2010 census, 955,032 people self-identified as descendants of or belonging to indigenous peoples, just over two percent of the total population. In the 2022 census, which showed a population of 46 million inhabitants, the question was asked again, but the results have not yet been released.

Although the recognition of the rights of native communities in the 1994 constitutional reform was a landmark from a legal and symbolic point of view, implementation has been another question, with the issue of land ownership seen as the central hurdle.

For this reason, in 2006 Congress enacted Law 26160 on Emergency Matters of Land Possession and Ownership of indigenous communities, which banned evictions of native communities for four years, blocking existing court rulings ordering evictions.

The first three years were to be used to carry out a survey of the lands where indigenous communities lived and promote the issuing of collective land titles.

However, 17 years later the law is still in force, since it had to be extended several times, which demonstrates the failure of its implementation.

The INAI completed surveys for only 46 percent of the legally constituted communities, as reported in late 2022. And today the road is much longer than before, because in 2007, when the communities started to register legally and the survey began, 950 registered, and the number has since grown to 1825.

But the survey does not imply that the land titling process is being carried out. This is an even more complicated step, because there is still no law in the country that regulates indigenous community property, which is different from the multi-owner residential development provided for under civil law, when there is more than one owner.

The community property law is another longstanding demand of indigenous peoples and human rights organizations, which Congress has not met.

Although some communities in the country have received their property title from the hands of provincial governments under different legal statuses, it is not known how many there are or what area these indigenous territories cover.

“The indigenous territorial emergency law was passed in a very particular context of expansion of the business of growing and exporting soybeans in Argentina, which caused a serious situation of constant evictions of indigenous communities,” Diego Morales, a lawyer with the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a human rights organization, told IPS.

“Since then, no government has wanted to hand over land to indigenous people and not even the associated communities in Lhaka Honhat (living in the province of Salta, in the north of the country) have been able to access a community property title and fully exercise their rights, even though they obtained a favorable sentence from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” he added.

Morales said the situation today is more difficult to resolve, because indigenous communities that have historically been discriminated against and neglected, who in recent years have become more aware of their rights, now not only lay claim to the land where they live but are also making cultural claims to territories from which their ancestors were driven.

Violence and debate

Diego Frutos, who suffered several occupations and attacks on his property in Villa Mascardi, in the province of Río Negro, by groups laying claim to his property for Mapuche indigenous communities, said there are people who are trying to take advantage of indigenous rights to reclaim land that does not belong to them.

“I do not deny the rights of the Mapuches, but those who attacked my property are not a registered community. They cannot be, because they do not have blood ties and they cannot show that they have had an uninterrupted occupation of a territory. They are a group of young people who seek to take advantage of the umbrella of indigenous rights,” Frutos told IPS from his town.

Frutos is convinced that those who attacked his property are backed by the administration of center-left President Alberto Fernández, who feels pressure from both sides while walking a minefield between indigenous people and the agricultural producers who settled on their lands, with neither side feeling satisfied with what his government has done.

Sandra Ceballos, a member of the Kolla people and vice president of AADI, the association of lawyers for indigenous rights, told IPS that the government is persecuting indigenous people, as demonstrated by the fact that an unusual joint command of federal and provincial forces was assembled in Río Negro, after the acts of violence in September.

Noelia Garone, a lawyer from the Argentine office of Amnesty International, said the lack of recognition of the right to land has triggered multiple violations of other rights of indigenous communities, such as education, healthcare, water or work.

“Due to economic interests over the land, we do not have a complete survey of indigenous territories in Argentina. That is the basic need, a diagnosis that is indispensable in order to solve this problem,” she told IPS.

This paper first appeared on IPS News.

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