Societal Challenges for Argentina’s Indigenous People
Every couple hundred people in Argentina comprise at least one indigenous person, whether they hail from the forests of Misiones, the lowlands of the Pampas, or the deserts of Patagonia. Putting cultural and geographical origins aside, however, these indigenous groups have long shared the same hardships of losing their land and dignity to oppressive settlers and governments.
Laying claim to the territory they have inhabited for time immemorial has done little to protect their traditional ways of life and livelihoods. Activism, anti-discrimination laws, and advocacy groups have brought Argentina’s indigenous people greater rights and respect. But we must recognize the challenges they continue to face. As well, we should appreciate, and perhaps even build upon, the steps organizations have taken to lead these groups toward a more peaceful and promising future.
National Indigenous Demographics
Indigenous people currently represent between three and five per cent of Argentina’s population but can account for as much as 25 per cent of certain provincial populations. They consist of anywhere from 19 to 35 distinct groups, mainly inhabiting the Argentine north and west.
And while they still mostly reside in rural communities, the impoverishment of their lands has forced many to transition to the country’s cities. Data on urban indigenous populations is limited. But it does suggest greater density in provincial capitals like Neuquén, as well as in the sprawling metropolis of Buenos Aires.
A 2001 survey found at least one person per Argentine household to identify as a member or descendant of indigenous groups. But the country’s indigenous people criticized the survey for excluding them. The Complementary Survey of the Indigenous Peoples later concluded in 2004 that over 383,000 households had indigenous blood.
The largest groups represented included the Mapuche (76,000 households), Toba (62,000 households), Kolla (53,000 households), Ava Guaraní (50,000 households), and Wichí (36,000 households). Between 400,000 and 600,000 Argentines identified themselves as indigenous or descendants of the country’s original indigenous inhabitants. This accounted for about 1.5 per cent of the national population.
Of course, true population numbers may exceed these due to many indigenous people continuing to hide their identity for fear of discrimination. Assimilation into Western society has already meant a loss of indigenous status for some. And for many others, the struggle to acquire land and receive basic human rights only persists.
In rural indigenous communities, a chief (or cacique, in Spanish) serves as the lead authority figure. They often receive analytical support from councils or commissions on matters of importance. Chiefs also integrate elements of neighbourhood associations, health and development committees, churches, schools, and other urban bodies to perform various responsibilities.
Assemblies host decision-making sessions for respective indigenous groups and elected members assign tasks to their communities. In some cases, indigenous organizations based around international borders claim transnational identity if frontiers divide their traditional territory.
The communities also form higher-level bodies to address strategic affairs. The Indigenous Communities of the Lhaka Honhat Association, a prime example, represents 43 communities in Argentina’s north. As well, the Mapuche Federation of Neuquén consists of various lonko chiefs from around the province. And the Indigenous Community of Amaicha del Valle and Quilmes and the Kolla Tinkunaku Community serve as collectives for grassroots movements.
The Guaraní People’s Assembly encompasses indigenous communities in the Jujuy province. The Pilagá Federation and Interwichí accommodate Toba and Wichí in the Formosa province. And groups like the Toba People’s Council in Buenos Aires unite urbanized indigenous communities that have migrated from their traditional lands.
Other organizations have established themselves to provide communicational, educational, and legal support to indigenous people in Argentina and beyond. They include the Council for Aboriginal Events, the Commission of Indigenous Jurists of the Argentine Republic, the Community of Students of the First Nations of America, the Association of Indigenous Communities, and the Mapuche Communications Team of the Río Negro.
Need for Greater Unity
Argentina has no confederation to encompass every indigenous group within its borders. This makes it harder to contact the communities’ spokespeople. Still, indigenous bodies have held joint meetings to discuss cultural, political, and economic interests since at least the 1990s.
These meetings initially brought constitutional reform. But they have further exposed the historical degree of separation between indigenous groups and the rest of Argentine society. They have also made clear the overlapping aspirations, interests, and projects of indigenous people. These particularly apply to matters of land claims, authority status, and cultural identity and preservation.
Argentina’s indigenous groups maintain that the country could have avoided many harmful actions and conflicts just by properly consulting them. And some have proposed the formation of a supraorganization to unite their many bodies and communities.
So far, they have only come moderately close to forming some sort of parent organization. Examples include the Indigenous Association of the Argentine Republic, the Organization of Indigenous Nations and Peoples in Argentina, and the Commission of Indigenous Jurists of the Argentine Republic.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw elaborate campaigns aimed at exterminating indigenous groups on prospective farmland. The most infamous example, President Julio Roca’s Conquest of the Desert in 1879, led Argentina to incorporate the modern-day territory of the Pampas, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego. Unfortunately, the practice of driving indigenous people from their land still continues.
The Chaco province hosts nine different indigenous groups that rely largely on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. There, forest felling and cattle rearing have impoverished the soil and destroyed local biodiversity. Entrepreneurs buy large tracts of land, levelling them to build farms. This ruins the reproductive cycles of the region’s flora and fauna that indigenous people survive on for food.
In the Pampas and Patagonia, landowners and traders shamelessly shrink the land of the Mapuche, Tehuelche, and Rankülche. Under the cover of darkness, they move property fences. As well, oil pollution in the Patagonian region contaminates water sources with hydrocarbons. This leads to higher levels of lead and mercury in the blood of indigenous people.
In the north, mining spillages have also contaminated the Pilcomay, a river running along the border of Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The presence of mercury and other heavy metals has now ruined this prime fish source for local indigenous communities.
Uninformed and Not Consulted
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has criticized Argentina for its minimal consultation with indigenous communities about developments and resource exploitation on their territory. Government projects often alter the land to the point of causing malnutrition and poverty for local groups. Even worse, the country may encourage investors and private enterprises to intrude on indigenous land for financial gain.
Multinational corporations also pressure struggling sheep farmers in Patagonia to sell their ranches and estates. This further complicates the process of indigenous people recovering the land settlers already once took from them. In the end, they benefit minimally from increased employment in the agro-industries due to their unstable ties with the labour market.
Older generations of indigenous groups tend to know their native tongue as their only language. But forced migration to urban settings dominated by Spanish speakers often causes younger generations to lose their language entirely. Argentina’s government has openly encouraged bilingual and intercultural education. Still, it continues to lack a proper system for implementing such schooling.
Major Indigenous Groups
Before discussing further the societal challenges and progress Argentina’s indigenous people have experienced, we should first appreciate the incredible diversity of human culture in this corner of the world. Here, we briefly learn about some of the country’s most populous, and thus most prevalent and affected, indigenous groups.
Encompassing groups like the Picunche, Huilliche, and Moluche, the Mapuche inhabit the southwestern provinces of Chubut, Neuquén, and Río Negro. In total, they comprise more than 105,000 people in Argentina, accounting for about 0.3 per cent of the country’s population.
Mapuche culture is heavily farm-based and governed by lonko chiefs. Having once escaped from the Inca Empire centuries ago, the Mapuche have functioned independently since as early as 600 BCE. Their own calendar system places the start of the year on July 24.
Spiritually, they worship their creator, Ngenechen, who embodies both their older and younger generations. They also believe in the world of Wenu (or Winche) Mapu and maintain a cosmic balance through prayer and animal sacrifice. Shamans, usually women, play fundamental roles in Mapuche belief.
Kolla (or Qulla)
With more than 70,000 members living in Argentina today, the Kolla make up the country’s second largest indigenous group. Among themselves, the Kolla hold elected positions and participate in various government activities.
Affiliated peoples, including the Zenta and Gispira, defended their land from the Spaniards for more than a century after initial colonial contact in the 1540s. Following Argentina’s independence, they continued to work for minimal wages.
Most recently, they regained possession of the Santiago Estate, which they lost hold of in 1997. But communal ownership policies prevent them from becoming officially entitled to their land.
Toba (or Qom)
The Toba account for part of the Guaycuru people of the Gran Chaco region between Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. More than 69,000 Toba live around the Chaco, Santa Fe, Salta, and Formosa provinces.
Recently, however, more than 120,000 Argentines have identified themselves as Toba. In this case, many of them live in more populous urban centres like Buenos Aires and Rosario.
Before the Argentine government’s claim to their forested region in the 1880s, the Toba lived as nomadic hunters. At the turn of the century, however, they began taking up mandatory work in cotton plantations.
Sadly, police and ranchers murdered around 200 Toba during the 1924 Napalpí Massacre. As well, the flooding of the Paraná River in 1982 ruined the Toba’s crops and particularly devastated their communities. Today, they still struggle to maintain both their land and livelihood.
The Toba have their own churches that merge their religious beliefs and practices with Protestantism. And their language represents part of the Guaicuruan linguistic group in the country’s north. Interestingly enough, while Qom refers to them as “simple people,” Toba translates as “big forehead.”
Historically hailing from Paraguay, the Ava Guaraní base themselves heavily in the northern province of Misiones. The nearby Iguazu Falls make regular appearances in their legends and folklore.
Due to the large presence of Jesuit missionaries in colonial times, this group has also implemented Catholicism and other elements of European culture into its own practice. Currently, the Ava Guaraní people number about 44,000 Argentines.
More commonly known as the Mataco, this group comprises an Argentine population of between 36,000 and 50,000. Once nomadic, their society used to revolve around hunting. Inhabiting the Chaco, Salta, and Formosa provinces today, however, they struggle with land rights, deforestation, and soybean production.
Progress and Activism
Argentina first officially recognized its resident indigenous groups in 1985 through its Law 23303. But it continues to lack a definitive federal indigenous policy. Moreover, the twentieth century saw constant changing of the names, administrations, and jurisdictions of organizations tasked with addressing indigenous affairs.
The first indigenous organizations would only emerge in the 1970s and first really make themselves heard by the 1980s. President Raúl Alfonsín had a law passed in 1985 to provide and protect sufficient amounts of land for indigenous communities. He also helped form the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs and instate bilingual education.
Amendments to the constitution in 1994 recognized the “ethnic and cultural pre-existence of the Argentine indigenous peoples” and the validity of their land claims. Building on the president’s work, the amendments also guaranteed indigenous rights to bilingual and intercultural schooling.
The country went on to form its National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism agency in 1995. And it later validated the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 169 in 2000 to recognize indigenous rights to self-governance and self-determination.
Today, both the country’s constitution and international human rights law recognize indigenous people’s entitlement to their land. The Congress of the Argentine Nation also approved a law in 2006 to suspend evictions of indigenous people while investigating and reversing the taking of their land.
Fighting for Rights
An increased number of indigenous-led protests aims to end the practice of discriminatory land intrusion. Perhaps most notably, indigenous organizations occupied the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs in 2002 to denounce underrepresentation of their people. But vocal attempts by these groups to draw attention to the inequality they face have often failed miserably.
In October 2009, Diaguita member Javier Chocobar died defending the expulsion of his community in the Tucumán province after a local landowner ordered him shot. And in 2010, Toba members blocked National Route 86 for four months to contest the development of a national university on their traditional land. The protest would abruptly end in injury, death, and arson following violent police intervention.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights intervened to caution Argentina against rash and needlessly violent decision-making. The Supreme Court of Argentina also came to the aid of the Toba in July 2013. It directed the local government and National Institute of Indigenous Affairs to draft an action plan that returned stolen land and required indigenous involvement in its future use.
Furthermore, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued measures to protect the Lule people of El Nogalito in the Tucumán province. Members of the group were beaten and threatened in November 2012 by individuals wanting to take their land. Less than a year later, the attackers set fire to their community building.
“The Land Is Our Life”
In any case, minimal entitlement of indigenous people to traditional territory has left room for the cunning to steal and infringe upon their land. Félix Díaz, leader of the Toba’s Potae Napocna Navogoh community in the Formosa province, told Amnesty International the following in 2013:
“We want to live as human beings. Not to be considered as strangers in our own country, poor or useless. We want to live without discrimination. We don’t want blood shed, we just want to reclaim our community.
“The land is our life. From it we get the food and medicine we need. It provides us with the natural resources to make our houses, for our livelihood. Without the land, we indigenous peoples will lose our spiritual roots.”
Promoting Better Treatment of Indigenous Groups
Despite major steps toward reconciliation in recent decades, the damage Argentina has long inflicted upon its indigenous people remains etched in their lives and memory. Still, human rights commissions and indigenous-led bodies have certainly helped secure fundamental protections and freedoms for the people who have inhabited this country the longest.
But achieving a society that truly respects the history, cultures, lands, and rights of its indigenous groups will take many more years of much-needed political and social change. And it has now become clear that these groups cannot bring such change on their own.
Rather, the Argentine government must call upon its nation as a whole and work closely with its indigenous people to give them back their lands and livelihoods. Why should others care about this? Because a country that unites its people in harmony achieves far greater things than one that rashly divides its society over matters as sensitive as personal identity ever will.