Indigenous Protesters Set to Starve to Death for Land

by August 10, 2006
 

Indigenous Protesters Set to Starve to Death for Land
By Marcela Valente, IPS News
August 10, 2006

BUENOS AIRES (IPS) – A group of indigenous people in the Argentine province of Chaco have been on a hunger strike for 21 days, in the provincial capitol building. They are in a windowless hearing room furnished only with a table and eight chairs, with the electric lights switched on day and night, and surrounded by police.

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“Imagine what it’s like for us, accustomed as we are to our forests and rivers, to be cooped up here like prisoners, escorted by guards even to the bathroom, sleeping on chairs or on the floor, and without being able to see our families,” Ricardo Sandoval, one of the hunger strikers, told IPS, clearly agitated from the effort of talking on the phone.

On Wednesday night, two of the 12 strikers stopped fasting, “as a sign of goodwill,” said the national Secretary of Lands for Social Habitat, Luis D’Elía. That decision was reached after a day-long meeting between D’Elía, provincial government minister Hugo Matkovich, and several other officials.

“Significant progress was made,” and “in a good climate,” said D’Elía.

The national government offered three million pesos (one million dollars) – two million for the Chaco Institute for Indigenous Affairs and one million for indigenous small farmers. The rest of the protesters’ demands are still in negotiation, but there are finally prospects for an agreement.

One of the two who dropped out of the hunger strike, Patricia Avalos, said that before she ate, she wanted to see her children. “I will be happy when I see that what I did paved the way for a better future for them,” she said.

Indigenous people in the northeastern province of Chaco have been involved in a longstanding conflict over irregularities in the distribution of government-owned lands, and other allegations. The crisis had come to a head over the last few weeks because the government had refused to continue investigating their complaints, and the indigenous people stepped up their protests.

During the first few days, the police would not let the hunger strikers, who included four women, leave the hearing room to use the bathroom. Lawyers from the National Institute for Indigenous Affairs (INAI) told IPS that at that point they obtained a court order to prevent this. The court ruled that no crime had been committed since the protesters had entered the building peacefully, and thus prohibited their confinement.

However, only indigenous leaders and reporters are allowed access to the hunger strikers.

“Those of us here are all Toba (Indians), but we’re doing this on behalf of 60,000 indigenous people from all over the province,” Eliseo López, another striker, told IPS between bouts of nausea and dizziness.

López has four children who are with his wife, 400 kilometres from Resistencia, the provincial capital, where the activists are fasting.

Dr. Oscar Arévalo of the Chaco Medical Association examined the protesters this week and said their condition was “deplorable.” “These people were basically undernourished and suffer from chronic anaemia and parasite infestation, and to add insult to injury they have not eaten, and they are confined here in uncomfortable conditions. Some of them cannot even stand up any longer,” he added.

“Their health has deteriorated drastically and their physical resistance will reach its limits towards the end of this week,” the doctor predicted. On Tuesday, Ceferino Pérez, one of the older strikers, was hospitalised, and the decision was made that he could not continue fasting. After two others dropped out of the fast on Wednesday, the total number of hunger strikers shrunk to nine.

“We don’t trust the provincial government any more, so our last hope is that the national government will listen to us before one or more of us die,” Sandoval told IPS.

The National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC) reports that there are some 400,000 indigenous people in Argentina, belonging to 20 different ethnic groups. Chaco, the country’s poorest province, is home to 60,000 Toba, Mocoví and Wichí Indians.

While the national poverty rate was 40 percent in 2005, it stood at 65 percent in Chaco. And it is indigenous people who bear the brunt of poverty, according to social organisations.

The hunger strikers have unsuccessfully demanded that Governor Roy Nikisch meet with them and respond to their complaints of improper distribution of public land over the last decade. By law, the land should have gone to indigenous communities and small farmers, but instead it has ended up in the hands of large landowners.

They are also demanding the resignation of the mayor of the town of Villa Bermejito, who they accuse of discriminating against indigenous people. The mayor, Lorenzo Heffner, is facing prosecution for misappropriation of state funds, and this month a public prosecutor brought charges against him for discrimination as well.

Governor Nikisch, who belongs to the Radical Civic Union (UCR), has accused President Néstor Kirchner of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party of fomenting the protests by indigenous people through the Secretariat of Lands for Social Habitat, headed by D’Elía.

D’Elía is the leader of one of the largest “piquetero” organisations making up the movement of the unemployed. The groups are known for their strategy of holding roadblocks (“piquetes”) to draw attention to their plight.

A week ago, on a visit to Chaco, D’Elía said “the governor should address the indigenous movement’s demands for the return of land that was stolen from them and from poor campesinos (peasant farmers) during the term of former governor Ángel Rozas (also of the UCR), and given to politically and economically powerful friends.”

The hunger strike began on Jul. 21 after a month-long dialogue between the provincial government and indigenous leaders. When the authorities came up with a proposal that failed to satisfy the communities’ demands, the group who had gone to the provincial capitol building to listen to their proposals decided to stay in the hearing room and begin to fast.

“The situation is dire, because we have an autistic and intolerant government,” Walter Zanuttini, a lawyer at the Chaco Institute for Indigenous Affairs, told IPS. The institute, which has traditionally been headed by a non-indigenous government official, has since 2005 had an indigenous director, Orlando Charole, who represents the interests of the communities.

Charole had been pressing the authorities since May to engage in talks with a delegation of indigenous leaders. In June, thousands of indigenous protesters decided to march to Resistencia from all over Chaco, and to set up camp in front of the government building until they were granted a hearing.

On Jun. 10 the provincial government agreed to hold talks, and promised to respond to the communities’ grievances. But the government’s response, which did not come until Jul. 21, disappointed the demonstrators.

“They offered us two vehicles, 45 job positions and a flow chart for the Institute for Indigenous Affairs, when we had asked for a budget increase (for the Institute),” Zanuttini said. “The land issue wasn’t even touched on, in spite of all our reports of irregularities.”

According to the non-governmental Nelson Mandela Study Centre, in 1995 there were 3.9 million hectares of government land in Chaco, of which there are only 660,000 hectares left. But the indigenous communities, who by law were supposed to be the main beneficiaries, were left out when the time came to distribute the land.

The hunger strikers are also demanding an audit of the provincial Colonisation Institute, which is in control of the government-owned land, and an investigation into the distribution of the property.

The government admitted that there now remain only 660,000 hectares of public land, and ordered a six-month moratorium on new land concessions. But according to Zanuttini, provincial authorities refuse to investigate what happened to millions of hectares of land that have already been distributed.

“The Colonisation Institute was selling land to its cronies at absurdly low prices, and six months later the beneficiaries would sell them at market price to large landholders,” the lawyer said. “We estimate that the deals involved 700 million pesos (235 million dollars), and the provincial comptroller’s office has now begun an investigation,” he added.

Zanuttini maintained that the provincial government is dragging its feet over launching an investigation that could trigger a major scandal. “This is a time bomb, because if they agree to move forward with this inquiry, a decade of corruption will come to light, and heads will roll within the present and former governments,” he stated.

Meanwhile, the nine remaining hunger strikers are growing weaker and weaker, just a few paces from the governor’s office. (END/2006)

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