Around five hours after leaving Bariloche our bus suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. “Leleque. La comunidad,” the driver announces. “We’ve arrived muchacha”. Outside, fields stretch towards mountains and the eye struggles to fix on the horizon. There is nothing resembling a town or even village outside the bus, only a tiny improvised wooden gate and a sign on a huge white canvas that says: “Comunidad Santa Rosa. Territorio Mapuche recuperado” (Santa Rosa community. Recovered Mapuche territory.).
Here, in a forgotten place, lost in the very heart of Patagonia, we have arrived at the point of a now globally-famous conflict: Santa Rosa de Leleque, where the indigenous Mapuche community is engaged in a long struggle to reclaim land they say is rightfully theirs from one of the world’s most recognisable clothing brands.
The Benetton Case
When we arrive, Santa Rosa de Leleque is bustling with people, as it has been for the last six years. Not only is this is the week of Kamaruko, the main religious festival of the Mapuches, but it is also the anniversary of the recovery of this stretch of land by the Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family and 30 other community members on 14th February 2007.
“They’ve been evicting us from our land for many years, using physical power and law of those who had invaded our territories,” Rosa Rúa Nahuelquir leaves her kitchen utilities for a while as she talks. “But we know we are stronger, because the truth is on our side and we will stand for it, no matter what it costs us.”
Atilio Curiñanco y Rosa Rúa Nahuelquir first entered the territory now called Santa Rosa de Leleque in August 2002. They planned to return to their ancestral land and start a new life after long years of working in the factories of Texcom and Frigorífico in nearby Esquel. And so began a long legal struggle with the global corporation Benetton Group over 535 hectares of remote land in the province of Chubut, Argentina.
The Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family claims the territory as part of that which originally belonged to their ancestors before the colonisation of Patagonia in the 19th century. Benetton Group, meanwhile, insists on the land certificate issued in 1991, when the corporation purchased over 900,000 hectares from the British company The Argentine Southern Land Company Limited (CTSA).
Atilio Curiñanco recalls: “We presented a written statement at the police station of Esquel after consulting with the Autarkic Institute for Colonisation and Rural Development (IAC), which verbally confirmed that the space was public and abandoned for many years.” According to Curiñanco, many other campesinos from nearby territories used the space to gather wood it was all dusty and windy and required a lot of work to make the piece of land productive. However, only a few days after they had entered the territory, local police made inquiries about the “land usurpation” and soon returned with a legal claim by CTSA.
In October of that year, the Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family was forcefully evicted from Leleque, having all their belongings either confiscated or destroyed. In 2004, the family travelled to Italy to meet Luciano Benetton, who offered around 2,500 hectares of the land to all indigenous communities in the region as a donation. “We obviously refused the offer, as Benetton wasn’t eligible to donate something he didn’t own,” Rosa Nahuelquir says, indignantly.
Benetton later proposed a donation of the same amount of land to the Argentine government who could distribute it among indigenous communities. In 2005, the government of the province of Chubut also refused the offer, announcing that the 2,500 hectares were unproductive and saying it would not enter into any conflict with the inhabitants of the territory.
In February 2007, the couple came back to Leleque with 30 other community members and began to build a house. CTSA immediately accused them of damaging the territory, though the penal court found the claim illegitimate. In the five years since, the family has faced many more legal claims from CTSA with charges for property destruction and eviction orders, the latest coming in February this year. The family has repeatedly rejected these claims, based on their need to cultivate plants, raise domestic animals, and build basic living conditions to survive. “How could I let my family die from hunger because of someone else’s cruel decision?” Curiñanco asks rhetorically.
Mapuche in Argentine
The ‘Mapuche vs Benetton’ case has attracted a lot of attention from global and local human rights organisations, the media, political parties, fixing an unflattering spotlight on a range of problems – from land conflicts to racism and equality.
The Argentine state included indigenous rights in the Constitution only in 1994, when it recognised “the legal capacity of these communities to the possession and property of land that they have traditionally occupied.” Yet those who have tried to exercise this right face long legal battles against powerful foes. Benetton is just one in a long list of corporations and celebrities engaged in land conflicts with the Mapuches – others include Levi Strauss & Co, Grupo Loma Negra, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, Emanuel Ginóbili, Marcelo Tinelli, Lopez Rey and many others.
In the 2013 annual report issued by The Observatory of Human Rights of Indigenous peoples (ODHPI), investigators say about 347 Mapuches are currently involved in lawsuits related to the land conflicts just in the province of Neuquen. “They [the government] make us feel as foreigners in this country, but at the same time they give out all lands to the foreigners!” claims Ruben Curricoy, a Mapuche activist from Bariloche. The ODHPI report, which focuses on Neuquen, Rio Negro and Chubut this year, adds: “Territorial dispossession continues to be the main obstacle for indigenous people to survive and develop in Patagonia as autonomous population.”
To understand the power and complexity of today’s land struggles in Patagonia, it is important to remember the history of Argentina and the treatment of indigenous people. You need go no further than Argentina’s $100-bill for a reminder of the infamous ‘desert campaign’ run by president Julio Argentino Roca in 1878 – 1885, which empowered Argentina as a leading agricultural country via the genocide of indigenous people who were evicted from their lands and killed. Back then, those families that invested in the campaign were handsomely rewarded, as one family descendant, who preferred not be named, recalls: “A beneficiary would be asked to look forward and take all the land that his eye was able to capture. And believe me, some people used to have a very good vision.”
Curricoy is quick to give other historic examples: “The government talks about 30,000 disappeared people during the dictatorship period. It’s not true. They only count disappeared huincas (a ‘white person’ in the Mapusungun language), while our people were dying in much higher numbers. I admire the fight of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, however, I can’t imagine an indigenous mother being heard by society. Only because she is not as white as a huinca.”
Even with recent advances, many in the Mapuche community still feel as though they are misunderstood. Curricoy remembers a visit to the Casa Rosada during the country’s bicentenary celebrations in 2010, when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner made a joke about the use of modern facilities after one of the delegate’s cell phone rang. “That was a turning point and made it clear that indigenous people were still excluded from this country really,” says Curricoy.
In another recent example, when three Mapuche communities in Neuquen were attacked by ten unidentified people, mainstream media barely covered the event.
The ODHPI report concludes: “the government bodies that are supposed to respond to the legal claims of indigenous people don’t perform their work” and in some cases even contradict the law. The report emphasises on the overall support that the government shows to private companies, speculating in such industries as exploitation of natural resources, tourism, and construction at the cost of indigenous people. In addition, the recent reforms to the Civil Code, proposed by the government, “will provoke more evictions and prosecutions for land usurpation” according to the ODHPI report.
Communitarian vs Private Property
With the provinces in desperate need of foreign investments and incomes, it is hard to imagine local governments supporting those who have no intention to exploit the land for commercial interests, like the Mapuche community, whose whole philosophy is built on protection of mapu, the land.
Sharing is one of the fundamental values among the Mapuche – in the Mapusungun language there are no such words as ‘no’ and ‘property’ – and this further complicates the land conflicts involving Mapuch communities. “We don’t have land certificates, because the ones we need don’t exist,” explains Ruben Curricoy. “We were offered individual deeds, which imply higher taxes and a lot of restrictions. Moreover, individual forms of property go against our philosophy of a communitarian form of life.”
According to the Mapuches, a ‘communitarian property certificate’ would include all members of the community and prevent selling of the land. Every member in this type of property has the same rights and opportunities to use the land. As the leadership style among Mapuches is horizontal, no one would have special privileges in decision-making and distribution.
“However, it is sad to see so many villages that can’t grow territorially with the population growth, so our future generations basically don’t have land to live and work on. And how would they, when on the left you have one owner and on the right another one?” Curricoy shakes his head.
The Struggle for Identity
For Gustavo Macayo, former lawyer of the Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family, the Benetton case is especially important in creating awareness of the Mapuche struggle. “This case has placed the whole situation with the foreign land ownership into a very important point and opened so many profound questions of Argentine society, questions that had never been asked.” Moreover, according to Macayo, those historical, ethical and juridical questions had always been hidden and silenced before the legal studies around the case of Leleque came into light.
“The problem goes outside of the small territory of Leleque. It includes at least three provinces in the south, where the Mapuche population counts on big numbers and is becoming aware of their land rights,” adds Macayo.
Curiñanco hopes the notoriety of his family’s case has also helped some younger generations rediscover their ethnicity. While many in Buenos Aires would probably be surprised that the ‘People of the Earth’ use cell phones, drive cars, watch TV, speak Spanish among themselves, and do most activities considered ‘normal’ for Westerners, some differences between the cultures remain very obvious.
Emmanuel Maripi from Comodoro Rivadavia is 21 and has diverse roots that include European and indigenous ancestors. He discovered he was Mapuche when he turned 18, and since then has started learning deeper about the culture of his grandparents and practicing traditional customs. This year’s Kamaruko was his first one and, a musician, he learnt a few Mapuche’ songs to perform them at the festival. “I live my life in the city in the same way as any other person of my age,” Emmanuel shares during a break between performances. “I study, work, hang out with my friends, take part and organise events related to music. At the same time, I see that a big part of my identity belongs to Mapuche society, and now I always try to find some time to spend close to the nature and understand better who I am as a Mapuche.”
“However, we also see other examples, when our people give up or even criticise us,” Curiñanco says sadly. “Some of them even don’t consider themselves Mapuches and feel ashamed of their roots.
“Many of them live in the cities where they are marginalised pretty quickly, and bring the fame to the whole ethnicity as criminalised and dangerous,” Curricoy joines the conversation and brings examples of big cities like Buenos Aires, Bariloche that count with a large number of Mapuche’ descendants.
Conversely, those that visit the Mapuche community in Leleque are always welcomed. “We’ve got visitors from all the parts of the world,” señora Rosa Rúa Nahuelquir recalls, “journalists, human rights defenders, artists, and a lot of policemen.” At this last word, she smiles ironically. “Our doors are open to everyone, regardless if the person is Mapuche or huinca and we never know if we can trust all these visitors. But we do anyway. We never learn from our mistakes…”
She is right. In eight days we spent in Santa Rosa de Leleque, each day was highlighted with an external visit. Every person was received warmly and invited to share meals, mate and conversations with the inhabitants.
Some visitors become lifelong friends, like Florencia Santucho, director of Argentina’s Independent Film Festival for Human Rights. Santucho has supported Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family since 2003. Nine years ago she produced a documentary called MariciWeu that narrates the story of the Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family and raises questions regarding their human rights’ violations. Not only she is perceived as a friend in this community, but also as one more Mapuche who continuously learns and incorporates parts of their culture in her own life.
“When you understand the Mapuche vision of the world you won’t have any more questions,” Santucho assures. “Recovering the land is a part of the ‘cosmovision’, which allows Mapuches to gain power in other aspects of their identity. Talking about Atilio Curiñanco, she shares: “He used to be a very timid person who never spoke a lot and didn´t seem confident at all. Now, I observe him as the person with a decent and firm position, and I am sure it comes thanks to his struggle for the land, for identity and connection with the Earth. Ñoque Mapu (Mother Earth) sees that and rewards with even more power.”
Where Civilisations Collide
“The powerful always have more rights, but we have different values that don’t fit into the western way of life,” Curiñanco looks at the Ruta 40 in only few metres from his house. “Some people consider us backward for our views and principles, but having another was of thinking doesn’t mean you shall destroy it with rules that go against our vision.”
Leleque now symbolises a spot, where two civilizations clash with their fundamental differences. On the one side is the owner of a big corporation with a network of over 6,500 stores, a total income of 2 billion euro a year, and over 900,000 hectares of Patagonian lands. On the other side is the Mapuche community, which believes in a communitarian type of lifestyle and simple, self-sustaining living.
“In the last ten years we’ve observed how Benetton was trying to avoid this case and show it as something small and less important. And I believe they will keep with that strategy,” Macayo speaks about the future of the case. “The Mapuches will do all they can to bring more problems to the surface, starting with the essential one – colonisation.”
Meanwhile, the Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family deals with another criminal suit filed by CTSA, who have now targeted INAI, an institution that works with indigenous people, and provides the legal support to the Mapuche family. At the moment Supreme Court is in charge of it, which might take two or three more years due to the complexity of the issue.
“We will obviously continue the fight, as there is no way back,” Curiñanco firms his position. His eyes sparkle and his voice gets stronger. “This is our land and we are responsible for it. It has given so much to us that it would be a crime not to take care of it…”
As we talk, on the other side of the room little Rosita, a granddaughter in the Curiñanco – Rúa Nahuelquir family, is learning some basic Italian words from Fabio, an Italian photographer who arrived in Leleque with his personal project. She absorbs the new language rapidly, and soon they are speaking basic Italian and then switch to Spanish and even teaches some Mapusungun in terutnr. It’s a small scene that depicts a wider hope that dialogue is always possible between our civilisations, even though it requires a lot of will from both sides.