Mapuche Indians in the southern Argentine region of Patagonia, who in 2002 took part in a land dispute against the Italian textile group Benetton, have returned to occupy land belonging to the firm, reclaiming their ancestral rights.
"This is not a protest, nor is it a clandestine action. We don't intend to be owners, but rather to live as a community in our territory," Mauro MillÃÂ¡n told TierramÃÂ©rica. He was acting as spokesman for the 25 Mapuches who since Feb. 14 have occupied the Santa Rosa farm in the southern province of Chubut in Patagonia.
There are six families building homes there, near the site from which they were expelled five years ago.
Santa Rosa, covering 534 hectares, is on the Leleque ranch. In 1991, Benetton acquired the CompaÃÂ±ÃÂa de Tierras Sud Argentino (CTSA), dedicated to agricultural production, which included Leleque and other ranches in the province.
In one section of the ranch, Benetton opened the Leleque Museum in homage to the region's indigenous peoples and pioneers. But the Mapuches say they do not want to see themselves portrayed as "trophies of one culture that destroys what is different", and they claim their right to the land.
The attorney general's office in Esquel, the closest city, last week filed a claim of misappropriation. But spokespersons from the firm told TierramÃÂ©rica it was a government claim. The company has not yet determined a legal course, because it considered the case closed.
The new community says the territory belongs to them since before the CTSA was created and that the seizure comes from that period. "This for us is a return to a common territory of the Mapuches. There are old cemeteries of ours there," said MillÃÂ¡n.
"Since our land was usurped, the landowners have enjoyed impunity, protection of private property. Is the snow private? Is the wind, is the river private?" asks a proclamation signed by the Mapuches, who say they will never give up this land.
The CTSA company was founded in 1889 when the Argentine government ceded land to 10 British citizens, with 90,000 hectares going to each one, bypassing the Mapuche communities who lived there, and who ended up as labourers on the new ranches, Leleque among them.
"From the world view of the Mapuche they have rights. The problem is that the land was divided more than a century ago amongst individuals. In other words, it's not government land," Gonzalo SÃÂ¡nchez, author of the book "La Patagonia Vendida" (Patagonia for Sale).
With the purchase of CTSA, Benetton then had 970,000 hectares in Patagonia, and is the top private landowners in Argentina. In 2002, the Mapuches Atilio CuriÃÂ±anco, Rosa Nahuelquir and their children occupied Santa Rosa, convinced that it was government-held land.
But the company, which used the land for forestry, denounced the invasion, and the police violently removed the Mapuches, destroying their humble home and their crops, and dispersing their livestock.
The Indians faced criminal charges for misappropriation and a civil case arising from the land conflict. In the legal process the judge ruled lack of blame for the accused, but on the civil side resolved that the land belonged to Benetton.
"Every time they bring native peoples like us into the supposed legal context it's to our detriment, but we have arguments to support us," said MillÃÂ¡n.
Since the expulsion, actions took CuriÃÂ±anco and Nahuelquir to Italy in 2004, accompanied by Adolfo PÃÂ©rez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel Peace laureate (1980), who organised an interview with Luciano Benetton. After that tense meeting in Rome, the business executive promised to look for a solution to the conflict.
Months later, Benetton offered the Chubut provincial government 7,500 hectares in Piedra Parada, located 200 km from the Leleque ranch. The idea was to set aside the land for the Mapuche families to farm, but the offer was rejected.
"The Chubut government determined that they were unproductive lands," said Paula VÃÂ¡zquez, of the international consultancy Burson Masteller, hired by CTSA for public relations. "It's true that it would need investment, but the land could be forested and used for raising sheep," she told TierramÃÂ©rica.
CuriÃÂ±anco and Nahuelquir are back, with other families from their community, camping on the land they believe was their ancestors'.
Benetton offered to make a donation. "But neither is it our responsibility to recognise ancestral rights over lands acquired from a private company," said the spokesperson.
According to MillÃÂ¡n, "the donation was to clean up Benetton's image, but they never proposed anything to us directly. Piedra Parada is rich in archaeological sites, a wonderful and fertile place, but it only ended up expanding the company's immense holdings."
The Chubut government, from which the Mapuches are demanding inclusive policies, has washed its hands of the matter. "We're not intervening because we are not involved. It's a conflict with a private company," an official who requested anonymity told TierramÃÂ©rica.
(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the TierramÃÂ©rica network. TierramÃÂ©rica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)
- 116 Human Rights