Stripped of much of their land and ancestral way of life, Argentina’s Wichí indigenous people live somewhere between the old world and the margins of the new. The Indy visits the remote communities of Rivadavia Banda Sur, in the province of Salta, a dusty area of neglect and isolation far removed from the Argentina most of us will ever know. All photos by Kyle Merrit Ludowitz
Rivadavia Banda Sur, Argentina – Thousands of kilometres from Buenos Aires, in the arid, low-lying floodplains of the Gran Chaco, this town of around 10,000 people is one of the poorest in Argentina.
It has the look and feel of a frontier town. Houses are ramshackle: four dirt-brick walls and a tin roof, surrounded by armadillo-capped palo santo fences. Wood fuels everything, adding smoke to the dust-laden air. The roads are pot-holed, frequently impassable, and the main form of transport is a motorbike bought on credit.
The poorest of the poor are the Wichí, an indigenous people who have occupied the northern part of Argentina for centuries.
Stripped of their land and way of life during the 18th and 19th centuries, persecuted well into the 20th, the Wichí live somewhere between the old world and the margins of the new.
Here, the unthinkable happens. Last year, three children died in a ten-day period: three from malnutrition (and this in Argentina, the “world’s granary”), and one from asthma because the ambulance she was in did not have oxygen.
Vernardino Pizarra, or ‘Chaile’, a rough-cut but kindly man with a choirboy haircut, is one of the few Wichí comfortable talking to strangers. Unlike the Mapuche in the south of Argentina, famed for their political savvy and relative integration into Argentine society, many of the northern indigenous groups lack economic resources and education.
“We don’t have health, jobs, education, land, housing,” says Chaile, who is President of Amtena Cacique, an organisation that draws together the 25 Wichí leaders from the region. “We have been abandoned.”
The State is not completely absent from Rivadavia Banda Sur – most Wichí are partly dependent upon government welfare in the form of child and unemployment benefits.
It is, however, barely present, and most live in limbo, partly sustained by meagre subsidies, but in conditions that make human advancement almost impossible.
Emblematic of this is the government-funded housing: structures so small as to be uninhabitable (3×4 metres), good for the youngest child or the shade they cast on a hot day, but not for the average family of eight.
A tour of the Wichí villages surrounding Rivadavia Banda Sur reveals this paralysing mix of poverty, neglect and isolation.
In La Esperanza, a small community of some 45 families around 34km from Rivadavia Banda Sur, silence reigns.
“There’s nothing here”, says Sikto Barroso, who is both Anglican pastor and cacique, or “pastor-cacique” of La Esperanza.
The closest secondary school is almost two hours and $100 away, so many are forced to drop out. (In Rivadavia, only one Wichí finishes secondary school every five years.)
But there is little that awaits them in La Esperanza. Beyond seasonal labour on the citrus, sugar and cotton farms of the region – traditionally backbreaking, underpaid work, performed far from home and informally – there is almost no employment.
“I hope that when the children grow up they leave and find work,” says Sikto, whose chief comfort is the Anglican Church.
The silence is interrupted by a visitor: a maniacally smiley man with a huge face and caramel skin, bursting at the seams in his white shirt and jeans (he’s from a Christian organisation). He’s driven here from Jujuy with eight teenage girls in the back of his truck- volunteers. They’re here to drop off supplies.
“The Wichí are completely abandoned,” he says, in his booming, redwood voice. “Last year we came through a neighbouring town and there was a little girl who was nine years old and weighed only 14kg.”
He describes the devastation when the town floods. In the summer, it rains for four months straight, the Bermejo River swells and the town is regularly cut off for up to six months at a time. A trip to hospital can mean a six-hour boat journey through turbid, Cayman-filled waters.
“The mayor only sent 6kg of goods,” he says. “That was gone in 2 days.” He says that the only people who deliver food and services to the community are volunteer organisations.
Tierra de nadie. “No man’s land,” he concludes.
Still, La Esperanza, with its tidy palo santo houses, swept dust and upright pastor-cacique, seems almost idyllic compared to San Felipe.
San Felipe is closer to Rivadavia Banda Sur, but almost just as isolated.
“We need medicine and doctors”, says José Campos, referring to the absence of a health clinic. “We don’t have clean water”.
Like most Wichí, Campos introduces himself last-name first – “Campos, José” – as though his interlocutor is a government official taking a roll call. Names are important. For the longest time, the Wichí were not even registered as existing.
His brother, Samuel, is a large-eyed, frail man with a wounded demeanour. He’s the only one who knows how to use the radio, the only means of communication with Rivadavia Banda Sur.
The radio looks ancient and is covered in rust. He sets it up and starts to repeat “San Felipe, Rivadavia, Rivadavia, San Felipe”. There is no response. Apparently, this is not uncommon.
What happens in the case of a medical emergency?
The people blink and shrug sadly. It’s not a pleasant thought to hold on to. The asthmatic girl who died in the poorly-equipped ambulance last year was from San Felipe.
Like indigenous peoples the world over, one of the central challenges the Wichí face is gaining rights to territory. Here, they are considered mere “occupants” of the land that sustains them.
On the edge of San Felipe, wire fences come into view. Joaquín Vázquez, a local teacher and activist, points in the direction of an artificially created embankment, inserted by a wealthy landowner to divert water north onto his property.
“Did you notice that everyone has their animals living with them? None of the wells in Rivadavia have any water because of the embankment. They have to hand water the animals.”
Like most Wichí, Campos introduces himself last-name first – “Campos, José” – as though a roll call is being taken. Names are important. For the longest time, the Wichí were not even registered as existing.
Land is central to indigenous identity. In the words of Félix Díaz, who is from the Qom tribe that also inhabits the Gran Chaco, “the forest is medicine for the soul; life is there.”
But, above all, when you don’t have a job and your only source of income is the limited child benefits you receive from the government, the forest and its bounty is essential to survival.
“Every season offers some benefit to our people,” says Ernesto Sarabia, who works as a bilingual teaching assistant, translating lessons from Spanish to Wichí.
In the summertime, the Wichí fish, hunt iguana and collect honey; in the rainy season, they hunt the chancho de monte (wild forest pig). The women make handicrafts from the chaguar plant all year round.
The Wichí should have collective title to much of the land surrounding Rivadavia Banda Sur, a place they have inhabited for decades. At least, that’s what the law says. Since 1994, the Argentine Constitution has recognised the prior cultural and ethnic existence of Argentina’s indigenous peoples and their rights to territory. They are, moreover, protected from eviction by legislation passed in 2007, which prohibits their removal from land they occupy until the State has completed a survey of national territory.
Various communities within Rivadavia Banda Sur have made submissions to government, outlining exactly where they have hunted, fished and transited for the last hundred years.
However, the idea of property at play in Rivadavia is a little more primitive. Here, might is right, so if you want something, you have to take it. First, the wire fences appear; then the ‘private property’ signs. Eventually, the hired muscle arrives. The person cast as “usurper” is generally the poorest.
Demetrios Campos, 36, sits at a simple wooden table outside his simple brick house. Overhead, two pet parrots squawk on a wooden beam – Boca Junior fans, according to Campos, because of their blue and yellow-capped heads.
Campos is the cacique, or leader, of La Misión, a community of some 150 Wichí on the edge of Rivadavia Banda Sur. He assumed his role at the tender age of 17 and in unusual circumstances – generally the role of cacique is hereditary but he was voted in.
A solid man with a falsetto voice and an unhurried pace, he is a kind of guide, representative, and spokesperson for the Wichí in La Misión. Like Chaile, he is confident talking politics in Spanish, which many Wichí don’t hear until primary school, and has had the opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires, unthinkable for most people here.
Last year, a well-dressed lawyer from Jujuy paid him a visit.
“He walked right into my house”, says Campos, “He sat in that chair just like you. He had a gun…He had his bodyguards…He told me he was going to have his way, no matter what.”
The man in question is Omar “The Turk” Quintar, a name practically infamous in the Wichí communities (he’s not actually a “Turk”, actually hailing from Syrian stock, but that’s Argentina for you).
Campos, Chaile and other Wichí maintain that Quintar has illegally acquired 14-15 estates within Rivadavia. Now he is trying to oust indigenous people “to turn the land into a tourist zone”.
In an interview with Pagina 12, Quintar described himself as a “conservationist”, and said he had helped the Wichí by funding local projects. He claimed he owned only one farm and various small blocks.
Certain events, however, suggest he is hardly a benign figure.
Last June, a group of Wichí tried to pass through La Llave estate, about 20km from Rivadavia, to access a lake they have fished in for decades. It’s a beautiful spot. Green and fragrant in the winter, with algorrobo trees so tangled and heavy they almost dip into the water. Wichí from various communities – La Mision, El Chañaral, El Breal – come here for the plentiful fish: bagre and surubi.
In this familiar place, however, the Wichí were greeted with a strange sight: men in army getup, equipped with “practically military weapons”, claiming to be from the gendarmerie. They accused the Wichí of trespassing. Intimidated, the Wichí fled.
Joaquín Vázquez, a local teacher and activist who has worked with the Wichí for the past two-and-a-half years, was suspicious. He and the Wichí returned later in the day, this time with a video camera. At the sight of the camera, the “gendarmerie officers” disappeared, though they soon returned shirtless and without guns. Vázquez, who has tawny features, a sociology degree from the University of Buenos Aires and is nicknamed “the gringo”, claimed he was from the Environment Ministry. All of a sudden the shirtless officers turned nice. They told him they were working for Quintar, and passed on his mobile number.
The Wichí reported the group to the authorities. Turns out, the armed men were fugitives from the law, they have since disappeared.
It’s not exactly clear how Quintar got title to this land, which, according to Vázquez, had been possessed by a criollo family for the last hundred years. (“They even continue paying taxes”, he says.)
Vázquez and Demetrios Campos claim Quintar is close to the mayor and funded his last political campaign. “Those who come here to appropriate property are already accommodated by the political system”, says Campos.
However, even without this “accommodation”, the Wichí are at an extreme disadvantage. They lack the financial resources and legal know-how to prosecute appropriation.
At the edge of La Misión, there is a vegetable patch, overseen by the Adventist Church. There are neat little rows of chard and carrots with equally neat little signs. Everything in God’s garden properly named.
Joaquín Vázquez smiles a little ironically in response to the comment “what a lovely garden”. He has his reservations about the Mission, and about the vegetable garden in particular.
He explains that the Church is given funds from the government to distribute to the Wichí́. Instead, they use this money to buy goods, which they exchange with the Wichí́ for working in the orchard. Either a suspect use of the funds, or a well meaning, if paternalistic, means of incentivising work.
The Church is crucial to understanding the Wichí’s plight. It is at once a source of consolation and community, and a self-interested, stifling, institution.
On the one hand, it was a refuge for Wichí people during the massacres of the 19th and 20th century. Many Wichí many positive feelings towards it – here in Rivadavia they are fiercely Anglican, and if you ask about life before the missionaries, most go quiet.
However, the Anglicans had their own motives for saving the indigenous tribes too. In the process, they converted them both into Anglicans and a docile labour force for the sugar and citrus farms.
Félix Díaz, President of the Indigenous Peoples’ Advisory Council (Consejo Consultativo de Pueblos Indígenas), who spent the first few decades of his life as an Evangelist, argues that the Church pacifies and debilitates indigenous people. “When I think about the way they manipulated me, I think, it just can’t be.”
He says they don’t demand what is rightfully theirs because they are first and foremost children of god. Suffering is a cosmic state of affairs and salvation is for the afterlife.
Joaquín Vázquez describes a pastor he met who said “if it were not for the Church, we would live in a permanent state of rebellion.” For him, this permanent state of rebellion would be a good thing.
Later on, Vázquez sits and painstakingly writes out raffle tickets to raise funds for the Wichí Secondary College they have recently founded in La Misión.
It’s a lot of work. Has he considered asking the Church or the Council for funds? He smiles and says he does all this precisely because he does not want money from the Church or from politicians. Under no circumstances.
Last year, when they prepared a report about the appalling conditions in the community, the starving children, the lack of education, the Church refused to sign. The Church does not want to bite the hand that feeds them, he says.
He adds that local Anglican pastors pair with politicians to help them buy votes. The pastors, true authority figures in the community, round people up at election time, bring them into town in trucks provided by the politician and tell them who to vote for.
It’s nothing new in Rivadavia Banda Sur. The whiff of corruption permeates everything. Many point out at the mayor, a butcher before entering politics, now lives in a mansion in Unión.
The Wichí and other indigenous groups are largely invisible to Argentine society and politics.
National identity is built on the denial of the country’s indigenous past. The “conquest of the green desert”, or Gran Chaco, in which thousands of indigenous people were slaughtered and subjugated, is still celebrated as a triumph of civilisation.
Last month, La Nación, one of Argentina’s most widely read newspapers, published an editorial criticising revisionist historians who depict the conquest as genocide. Instead, it claimed the Conquest of the Desert was a clash of cultures, and the moment that Argentina became great.
This negation is shockingly obvious in Rivadavia. Around 200 metres from Demetrios Campos’ house, sitting in the soil for all to see, are human molars, bits of bone, and clay vessels used to bury the dead before the arrival of the Anglicans.
A massacre? A cemetery? A war between two tribes?
“It’s sad to think that we may never know what happened, because these are undoubtedly the bones of our relatives,” says Chaile.
Wichí history is of interest to few, and without a dedicated team of anthropologists, no serious truth can be uncovered.
Of course, as many point out, there’s no shortage of laws in favour of indigenous people in Argentina: article 75C of the Constitution, recognising their cultural and territorial rights; the land emergency law, which prohibits the eviction of indigenous peoples from land they occupy until a national land survey is completed; the 1989 Indigenous Tribal People’s Convention, ratified by Argentina, which recognises their right to self-determination; as well as various provincial laws.
There are also laws that indirectly benefit them, like the Forest Law, which prohibits deforestation in many parts of the country.
The problem is they’re not enforced.
Forced removal of the indigenous people is relatively common, though the Land Emergency law prohibits this. As recently as November of last year, in Salta, the infantry forcibly removed 30 families from four different indigenous groups from their land.
There is also a deep lack of confidence in the institutions that have been created to champion the Wichí and other indigenous.
In Rivadavia, for example, the INAI, the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs, created by the government in the 1980s, is roundly despised for its corruption and inaction.
Even the INAI representative in Rivadavia, Armando Acosta, claims to be fed-up: “I’m sick of the lies of the INAI,” he said to a large group of Wichí at an assembly organised by Amtena Cacique.
Enter Amtena Cacique.
Amtena Cacique is made up of leaders and representatives from the various Wichí communities in and around Rivadavia Banda Sur.
It seeks to be independent from the State – none of its members receive a salary and it does not manage government funds.
This coincides with what many describe as a “historic” moment in the history of indigenous affairs in Argentina. In July, Félix Díaz, famous for hardline refusal to pact with political parties and for his direct action, was elected President of the newly formed Consejo Consultivo y Participativo de los Pueblos Indígenas (Consultative and Participative Council of Indigenous Peoples).
Importantly, he says he will perform this role “not as a public functionary or as an ally of the government, but as an indigenous leader”.
The government must consult the Council before it passes any laws that affect indigenous people.
His appointment hasn’t been met without controversy. Some indigenous groups claim Díaz doesn’t represent them.
Díaz, however, is pro-dialogue. “We want to construct a space for everybody, where all can coexist,” he said.
See more photos of Rivadavia Banda Sur here.