When the Curiñanco family moved onto a small plot of land in the jagged mountains of Argentine Patagonia in 2002, local officials assured them it was “unoccupied.” This small indigenous family started a small farm growing vegetables and raising goats, one kilometer away from the small village of Leleque near the western edge of Chubut province.
A month later, they were forcibly evicted by an unlikely landlord: Italian fashion company United Colors of Benetton.
Two years later, Atilio Curiñanco told The Guardian, “It is hard to understand. They gave the land to Benetton, who are in Italy. They destroyed everything we had done, everything we sowed, our little house. Benetton razed everything with a machine. We hadn’t harmed the land, on the contrary we had done it good.”
Benetton and the indigenous Mapuche people of the region have been locked in a territorial dispute for the past thirty years. Benetton owns 2.2 million acres of land, about the size of Puerto Rico, in southern Argentina—land historically inhabited by the Mapuche.
Argentina is home to 205,000 Mapuche, who, along with their 1.5 million Chilean counterparts, form the largest indigenous group in Patagonia. Since the arrival of the Spanish in 1502, colonial and postcolonial governments have subjected the Mapuche to oppression and isolation on both sides of the Argentina-Chile border. In Chile, Mapuche groups have violent territorial disputes with authorities, and some Mapuche groups have committed arsons and bombings against commercial and government targets. But in Argentina, where the constitution nominally recognizes indigenous rights, the Mapuche face a different enemy—Benetton.
Benetton, which acquired its Patagonian property in 1991, is the latest of a series of large companies to own the tract, and is now the largest landowner in Argentina. While some of the company’s landholdings are designated for wool production, mining, and logging, much of their property remains undeveloped. Although Benetton legally owns the land under Argentine law, many Mapuche and their allies contest this claim, pointing to a provision in the Argentine constitution that acknowledges the indigenous right to ancestral territory and natural resources. Government officials, however, have never upheld this right in policy or litigation. With the Argentine government unwilling to enforce their legal protections, the Mapuche have been left to fight for themselves
Sixteen years after the Curiñancos were evicted, tensions between Mapuche and Benetton are rising again.
Mapuche farmers living on the border of Benetton’s land allege the company has built fences to cut off their access to springs. In an act of resistance, activists affiliated with the separatist group Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM) have created a group of settlements known as Pu Lof on Benetton land to demand its return to the Mapuche. Many Mapuche and activists have faced violent repression from the authorities.
On August 1, 2017, while protesting for the release of RAM’s imprisoned leader, Facundo Jones Huala, the Mapuche were raided by Argentine security forces in the Pu Lof settlement near Cushamen. According to an Amnesty International report about the incident, “the GNA fired lead and rubber bullets, and burned many families’ possessions.”
One of the activists, Santiago Maldonado, disappeared during the raid. Two months later, his body was found in a river. Left-wing groups were outraged over the incident, which dominated Argentina’s media for months. However, the coverage was focused on Maldonado, who notably was not indigenous. Journalists did not write about the structural and systemic inequality faced by the Mapuche, although that is what Maldonado himself was fighting against.
This journalistic oversight reveals a recurring pattern. Aside from coverage of the Curiñanco family’s eviction, Benetton has not faced media pressure over its occupation of Mapuche land. In the courts, Argentinian officials have continuously sided with multinational corporations over the interests of their own indigenous citizens.
Argentina’s consistent choice to back multinational corporations over indigenous citizens stems from profit motives. Instead of saving land for the ancestral claims of indigenous groups, the Argentine government often sells the land to private corporations. For example, a lucrative shale formation in Patagonia called Vaca Muerta was sold to Chevron and other private corporations over Mapuche land claims.
In addition to RAM, nonviolent activists have continued to fight for territorial autonomy for the Mapuche. One prominent outlet for activist voices is Radio Autónoma Piuké, based in Bariloche, which has a significant Mapuche population. Piuké activists have been arrested, intimidated, and harassed by authorities.
The environmentalist branch of Piuké posted the following statement on March 28th: “We say to you that we will not stop building memory until we reach truth and justice, that we are not intimidated by your perverse strategies that can be legal but not legitimate”.
There are differing opinions among the Mapuche as to what form of resistance is most effective. Some, like the Curiñancos, do not support the violence of RAM. The family told El País in 2017, “The way these young people fight is not accepted by the 110 communities here. But the idea of recovering the land does. Here they destroyed a culture.”
As an alternative to violent resistance, activist and artist Soraya Maicoño uses theater and music to preserve Mapuche culture. Although she is not personally affiliated with RAM, she believes criticisms of the group’s violence are hypocritical. In January 2018, she told blogger Nano Peralta, “There is a great condemnation on the part of some sectors of society regarding the methods that are used for the recovery of territories… We were always violated by the Argentine and Chilean states. And society does not condemn that. It does not condemn how they killed, how they raped our sisters, our grandmothers, how they cut off women’s breasts, how they completely separated a family.”
Mapuche resistance of all forms has faced legal obstacles. In March 2018, Jones Huala was extradited to Chile, setting off mass protests in Mapuche communities in Chubut and other areas of Argentine Patagonia that resulted in the arrest of Piuké activists.
In the midst of crackdowns and repression, the Mapuche of Argentine Patagonia continue to reaffirm their culture and assert their right to the land.