In the two centuries since Argentina´s independence from Spain, the country´s indigenous groups have been left out of public policies, their territorial rights routinely ignored along with their culture and customs.
Now, Argentina´s indigenous peoples are demanding a change. More than 20,000 indigenous protesters crowded Buenos Aires´ Plaza de Mayo on the bicentennial to demand that the country become a plurinational state.
Members of the Kolla, Mapuche, Toba-Qom, Diaguita-Calchaquí along with other social organizations marched to the capital from provinces as far as Jujuy, Chaco, Mendoza and Neuquen, to demand protection of their native lands, environmental protection and improved health care and education.
According to the Complementary Survey on Indigenous Peoples, conducted by the National Statistics and Census Institute in 2004 and 2005, only 1.6 percent of Argentina´s then-population of 36.2 million recognize themselves as indigenous. A University of Buenos Aires study in the same period found 56 percent of the population has at least one indigenous ancestor.
Indigenous rights in Argentina saw some advances in the 1990s. Territories were official handed over to indigenous communities and new intercultural health care and education centers were implemented.
A 1994 constitutional reform established the previous, free and informed consultation of indigenous peoples regarding any initiative or project that would affect their community, a pillar of the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169, which Argentina ratified in 2000. But these changes have not made a great deal of difference in practice.
In November 2006, Argentine lawmakers approved the Emergency Indigenous Community Property Law in an attempt to stem conflicts over land, which in many cases ended in violent evictions. The law called to end the evictions for four years, in which the state would evaluate each land claim with the aim of giving the communities land titles in the end.
The law was extended to 2013 three years later because it had not yet been applied fully. But it did little to stop land conflicts and subsequent violence. In October 2009, Javier Chocobar, of the Diaguita Calchaquí community in Chuschagasta, in the northern Tucuman province, was gunned down when landowner Darío Amín, accompanied by two hitmen, attacked the villagers who were living on his land.
“A big part of the indigenous peoples´ demands is for [the government] to put into practice rights that are already recognized, because there is a disassociation with what happens in practice and their recognition,” said Roberto Ñancucheo, a Mapuche leader and chief of the federal Environment and Sustainable Development Secretariat´s Native Peoples Office. “The challenge is how, from our cultural conceptions, from our own ideas of organization, we become the answer to how the state can make sure these rights are recognized.”
He said indigenous groups´ ability to mobilize is a key part to the equation.
Twenty-six indigenous organizations have participated in the National Forum of Native Peoples Organizations since 2009, which helped push for a new media law passed in October that guarantees indigenous groups access equal access to autonomous media outlets.
“This coordination was helpful because the organizations themselves are not asking the state to do something, but instead, seeking alliances to try to demonstrate the ability they have and not turn to lawyers, which is what we did in the beginning,” said Félix Díaz of the Toba-Qom Navogoh community in the northeastern Formosa province.
Many social, environmental and human rights organizations, which have worked on indigenous rights issues for decades, agree that Evo Morales in Bolivia´s presidential palace spurred support for Argentina´s indigenous struggle.
“The Bolivian process is important because the indigenous no longer consider themselves social objects — artisans, musicians, dancers,” said Marcelo Luna, spokesman of the Communities Coordinating Body of the Charrúa community in the Entre Ríos province, near the Uruguayan border. He said that the communities now think of themselves as empowered actors to turn around centuries of colonial policies and the construction of a more equal state.
Mario Quinteros, of the Diaguita Calchaquí People´s Union, which works in the Tucuman, Salta, Santiago del Estero, Catamarca and La Rioja provinces, says this goal is a challenge.
“I hope that social organizations start to debate indigenous issues: their existence, visibility, considering them as political subjects with possibilities to contribute to change in Argentine society,” he said. “But above all, I think that our own leadership, in communities and organizations, has to begin with ending the exclusionary position that looks at everything from what the indigenous groups propose. We have to think how, in a broader process with an alliance with all popular sectors, we can have a better future.”
“I think that the defense of cultural diversity or indigenous identity does not have to mean denying the rest of Argentina´s, Latin America´s social context, but rather, precisely say: we are Diaguita, we are Mapuche, we are Qom, we are Wichí. This is our place in the world, and these are our allies, who share the same vision with us,” Quinteros added.