Benetton VS Mapuche.
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Patagonia has a long history of colonial oppression. But the corporate conquistadors behind the current round of evictions are more renowned for their interest in worthy causes than their cut-throat approach to real estate, reports Sebastian Hacher
In the extreme south of Argentina lies Patagonia, a region which encompasses every imaginable climate and terrain from turquoise rivers and lakes to desert and glaciers. Below the 'Cordillera', the pristine snow capped mountain range of the southern Andes which separates Argentina and Chile, lies the flat and fertile expanse of the pampas on which sheep and cattle graze.
In this area live the Mapuche. Known as the 'Gente de la Tierra' (People
of the Earth), this indigenous population has lived on both sides of the
mountains without concern for nationality for 10,000 years. For the last
500, they have resisted continual invasions, extermination attempts, and
land grabs. In 1879, over 1,300 Mapuche were massacred and their land
confiscated for English immigrants in a genocidal war, 'La Conquista del
Desierto' (The Conquest of the Desert). During this campaign, the Argentinian
state divided up the majority of the stolen land into 8,000 square kilometre
lots, and handed over 41 million hectares to less than 2000 settlers.
Today, the Mapuche are facing a new conquest as rich Europeans and North Americans arrive to take advantage of the low prices and open economy established under the globalization-friendly presidency of Carlos Menem in the 1990s. In the last few years figures such as Ted Turner, Jerry Lewis, Sylvester Stallone, Christophe Lambert, and George Soros have become Patagonia's new landlords.
This influx of celebrities and business tycoons amounts to a neo-colonial
land grab of what little territory remains in the Mapuche's hands. Rogelio
Fermín, a Mapuche farmer, describes the latest enclosures: 'Here
they fenced off all that they wanted. If it was a pretty valley, for that
reason they appropriated it, if it was beautiful pampas, they closed it
out. They left us among the stones, among the worst fields.'
United colors of property
Among the new owners of Patagonia two brothers stand out, both for the amount of land they have managed to buy and for the agreement they have reached with Mapuche families living nearby. These two brothers are Carlo and Luciano Benetton.
The Benetton Group is today the largest landowner in Argentina, with 900,000 hectares (an area equivalent to 900,000 football fields) in resource rich Patagonia. With nine percent of the region's most cultivatable land, their holdings are 40 times the size of the capital city, Buenos Aires, the second largest city in Latin America.
Benetton not only has clothing outlets in 120 countries, but also controls freeways and telecommunications companies in Europe. With a total of 7,000 retail stores and production figures of 100 million articles a year, Benetton's average yearly revenue is 7 billion Euros.
'Patagonia gives me an amazing sense of freedom,' said Carlo Benetton on taking posession of his new Argentinian territory. But Benetton gets more than just a personal sense of liberty out of their ranch land: Benetton's 280,000 sheep produce 6,000 tons of wool a year, ten percent of its production needs.
For a total of $50 million, Benetton bought out the British owned Compania
Tierras del Sur Argentina S.A. (called simply 'La Compañía'
by the local population) in 1991. In return for land occupied by the Mapuche
for 13,000 years, Benetton constructed the Leleque Museum in 2002, to
'narrate the history and culture of a mythical land.'
The Curiñancos contacted the Instituto Autárquico de Colonización (IAC), a state managed real estate agency, to request permission to occupy a piece of ranch land called Santa Rosa, situated in front of a Benetton property. The land was well known to the Mapuches as unoccupied indigenous territory and the IAC verbally confirmed this. After waiting 8 months, the Curiñancos still had not received a written response about the Santa Rosa property.
When, in August 2002, the IAC finally presented a note to the family
stating that 'information has been obtained that leads us to believe that
the property is zoned commercial,' and that 'our interest is to reserve
it for a micro-enterprise,' the Curiñancos decided to go ahead
with their plans. On 23 August, they showed up at the Esquel Police station
in Chubut and made it known that they would be occupying Santa Rosa. The
same afternoon a group of campesinos began to work the land with the little
resources they had, to plow, sow vegetables, and raise animals.
'We went to land without harming anyone.' says Atilio. ‘We didn't cut a fence, we didn't go at night, we didn't hide ourselves. We waited for someone to come to let us know if it bothered them, to present us with a document that the land belonged to someone, and no one ever showed up,'
To Benetton lawyer Martin Iturburu Moneff, the dispute was not political but merely a problem of 'common delinquency,' with no legal basis for the Curiñancos actions: 'To suggest that restitution of the usurped land would restore the dignity of a family who want to make ends meet would only confuse people. It distorts things.' Weeks later he declared to the press that 'The relationship between La Compañía and the Mapuche community is excellent ... This is the first time that we have had any problems about land.'
The Curiñancos, however, say that they will return to the land that was taken away from them, and refuse to let Benetton redraw the lines of their history.
On 26 November 2002, more than a year since the eviction, and after an intense campaign by the Curiñanco family, the vice-president of La Compañía met with them saying he would ask Bennetton to drop charges against them if in return they would stop trying to recover the land. The Curiñancos, convinced of their position, replied in the negative: 'Even if we have to go to Italy, we are going to keep fighting for this land.'
Leleque: The next eviction?
Across the dusty highway from the Santa Rosa property, Atilio's 85-year-old
mother, Doña Calendaria, has to jump the fence of the Benetton
property to access water from the area's only stream.
Leleque is a village of 8 families, most of whom but not all are Mapuche. They used to work for the Argentinian railroad company loading wool, leather and other goods for transport to the capital city. In 1992, a year after Benetton bought the surrounding property, the loading stop in Leleque was closed.
'This used to be a beautiful town, but now it looks like a cemetery,'
says Calendaria's neighbour, Pichón Llancaqueo. When the loading
station was shut down, running water for the families was cut off, and
police stopped serving the area. The local cemetery is now part of the
Benetton estate, in the yard of the Leleque Museum. Without work, drinking
water or land to grow food, the inhabitants of Leleque had only their
animals to help them survive. Then, at the end of September 2003, the
state passed a resolution prohibiting the village's inhabitants from keeping
animals. The same month Leleque's 50 inhabitants were told by the state
owned railroad company that they had three months to abandon their homes
to make way for a tourist attraction which would use the very houses that