The history of the Wichí indigenous peoples is the history of Argentina, as viewed from the other side. Not the triumphalist tale of progress brought to the wild desert in the 19th century, or soy fields fuelling economic prosperity in the 20th. Rather, it is one of the persecution and denial of Argentina’s indigenous extensive population, and the destruction of their traditional lands.
For over one hundred years, the Wichí and other indigenous peoples were massacred by the Argentine state; survivors were sent to concentration camps or used as slave labour on sugar and cotton plantations. This is not the distant past: the most recent – and brutal – massacre was in 1947, during the first presidency Juan Domingo Perón.
Today, they are the most “most abandoned, the most oppressed, the most enslaved group of people in Argentina”, according to Joaquín Vázquez, a sociologist and teacher who works with Wichí people in Rivadavia Banda Sur, a far-flung municipality in the province of Salta.
Rivadavia Banda Sur is home to a few thousand Wichí people, who live in the local town and in settlements scattered over the surrounding scrubland, part of the sprawling Gran Chaco lowlands. Poverty is everywhere: aside from the trickle of meagre hand-outs, the state is mostly absent (except around election time, when it sets up soup kitchens in various communities to buy votes).
“We do not receive support from anyone. We have nothing”, says Samuel Acosta, who lives in San Felipe, an indigenous settlement about 30km north of Rivadavia. The problems in San Felipe are typical of many of the Wichí communities. It has no health centre, no clean water, no electricity, and no source of stable communication with Rivadavia. During the summer, when it rains for three months straight, the village often floods and is cut off from other settlements – residents are forced to boat it to a neighbouring village, braving caymans and pumas. Last year, a little girl died of malnutrition.
And, at the heart of everything, there is one word: tierra. The land, in the words of journalist Dario Aranda, is the “supermarket and pharmacy” for the Wichí people. But somehow – and it is never clear how, because it happens illegally, strategically, and with the complicity of local government – the Wichí find fences and gates, the hallmarks of private property, sprouting on the land they have always called their own.
Laws approved in 2006 forbade the forced removal of indigenous people from settlements until a survey of indigenous lands was completed. However, in Rivadavia Banda Sur, which at times feels like an Argentine version of the Wild West, might is too-often right. Demetrios Campos, cacique of the Misión La Paz community in Rivadavia, describes the presence of armed guards on so-called private property. “I tried to collect honey with my family about two kilometres from here. Two men tried to kill us for passing through the land”.
The demands of the Wichí today are simple. They want what the law grants them: title deeds to the lands they have occupied for decades, clean water, hospitals, schools, work. It is an uphill battle. Unlike the wealthy landowners keen to raze the land for soy fields and tourist projects, the Wichí can’t tempt the government with the promise of “profit” and “productivity”.
However, the winds of change are here. The new caciques and leaders, embodied by Campos, who recently travelled to Buenos Aires to attend historic discussions about the election of an all indigenous advisory council, are brave, bold and increasingly politically savvy.
Above all, they’re sick of the empty promises of the state. They want recognition and a space of their own, and they are ready to fight for it.
All photos by Kyle Ludowitz for The Indy.