For decades, a group of indigenous communities in northern Argentina has been battling with hundreds of “Creole” families — descendants of European settlers — over 643,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) of land. The dispute has gone to national and international tribunals, and the local government has taken an ineffectual stab at resolving it. Meanwhile, as uncertainty reigns, some of the indigenous people are being illegally driven off the land where they live as the rates of poverty, childhood mortality, and malnutrition climb.
In Argentina’s Salta province, home to about 20,000 indigenous people, 71 native communities, including the Wichí, Chorote, Chulupi, and Tapieté, are battling for land that belongs to the provincial government but to which they claim “ancestral rights” dating to before the arrival of European settlers — land that has long been coveted by multinational corporations for its energy and mineral deposits. Several oil companies drill in the area, and the ecosystem is under pressure from large-scale soy and timber production.
With the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983, successive governments promised to resolve the conflict, which has gained national attention. Finally, in 2014, the provincial government decreed a division of the land: 400,000 hectares would go to 71 indigenous communities and 243,000 hectares to 463 Creole families. But the properties were not precisely delineated, and now the boundary disputes are before the country’s highest court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Civil society groups have stepped in to help supervise the boundary-marking, but the process is complicated and fraught, as parts of the territory contain jungle and forest, while other parts hold aquifers and valuable mining and drilling sites.
The provincial government and business interests have used underhanded means, including deception, intimidation, and evictions, to take the best property from the indigenous people, and local officials have not fulfilled their promises to build infrastructure and stop the proliferation of illegal fences across the territory.
As a result, the indigenous people are being “herded” onto mountainous land that lacks necessities such as clean drinking water. Basic government services, including schools and birth registrations, are difficult to access, and health services are either too far away or inadequate. With no neonatal or pediatric intensive care nearby, in the last week of December 2016 alone five children from the impoverished Chaco Saltena region of Salta, died of malnutrition, infections, or dehydration. Natives’ frequent home births further imperil the lives and health of their infants.
I want to document this process of dispossession and impoverishment of the indigenous people in northern Argentina by traveling to the department of Rivadavia in Salta province. For now, Salta, which is home to nine ethnic groups, is the country’s most diverse province, but forces are converging that could condemn some of these groups to a silent and slow extermination.
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