Argentina's indigenous Wichi community fights eviction

Argentina's congress has renewed a law preventing indigenous people from being evicted from land they say belongs to them.

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    Three hours away from the city of Formosa, in northeast Argentina, decades of inequality and discrimination are difficult to ignore.

    It's mostly concentrated on the country's poor indigenous minority who lack basic services and have been systematically ignored by the state.

    It is here where Isidoro Castillo and his community have been fighting eviction from the land for years.

    The land is close to Las Lomitas in an area they call Pampa del 20.

    Castillo is a member of the Wichi community that has for centuries inhabited this part of the country.

    He was born in the area, and to prove it he shows pictures taken of him by photographer Grete Stern with his mother as a child.

    "My mother got very sick and we had to leave," Castillo told Al Jazeera.

    "But this land was part of our territory, our land," he added.

    "For years we have been discriminated, lived in poverty and now they want to take away the only thing we have left and that will make us a community again."

    At one time the Wichis had 20,000 hectares of land [Al Jazeera]

    The Wichis had 20,000 hectares of land here in 1919 . Now they are fighting for 500.

    Almost six years ago some came back to stay but they are being persecuted.

    According to local sources, the land belongs to a family from the city of Formosa.

    Silverio Moreno, a Wichi community member, told Al Jazeera that a family from the city of Formosa says the land belongs to them and have done everything possible to make the Wichi leave. 

    He was shot at and later hit by a car, that he said was driven by one of the family members. 

    "He tried to run me over one," he told Al Jazeera. 

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    "The second time, he succeeded and hit me," he said.

    "I have been struggling to recover for months as I have left filled with nails."

    The community has filed at least 17 complaints in Formosa but they have been ignored over and over again.

    On Wednesday, Argentine Congress renewed the 26,160 emergency law that is supposed to guarantee that these people won't be removed by force.

    It is also supposed to map indigenous communities around the country so they have some type of protection. Communities have to prove they have a historic right to live in the land.

    'Punishing us in every way'

    For this community the pictures and the ancient cemeteries should be enough but so far they have received no recognition.

    Castillo and others say their grandparents are buried here.

    The cemetery is filled with small ancient crosses.

    This area was evangelised by the Anglican Church that has offered to act as a witness that the community belongs to this place.

    But staying in Pampa del 20 is a challenge.

    Bernardino Martinez, another member of this Wichi community, says that because of the current lawsuit happening here the community is not allowed to do much on the land. 

    "I once wanted to sell some wood to survive but I was caught by the police and they took everything away," he told Al Jazeera.

    "We could be growing more watermelons, onions and other things to sell but they want to punish us in every possible way."

    There are more than 1,500 land disputes in Argentina [Al Jazeera]

    In Argentina, there are more than 1,500 land disputes and many have ended in violence and deaths.

    In the Southern Patagonia area, a group of members of the Mapuche indigenous community, have taken over land owned by the international clothing brand Benetton.

    Clashes in August with the border patrol police ended in the death of an activist that was supporting the cause.

    The government of Mauricio Macri says it is trying to continue mapping indigenous communities around the country because until now the process has been very slow.

    It is complex because it involves negotiations between the federal and local government but also with private individuals who claim the land was purchased legitimately.

    But in some cases, like in Campo del 20, the local organisations say the papers have been forged and that the land belongs to the Wichis.

    "Areas like Formosa are feudal," said Pablo Chianetta, who is part of the Association for the development of culture and development.

    "There is one power that controls it all," he told Al Jazeera.

    "There is a mentality where the white man rules and in general indigenous people's rights have been ignored over and over again. The mentality here is that they should be rural employees or slaves."

    Indigenous or not, people in this area are among the poorest in the country.

    Children suffer from illnesses that have long been eradicated in other parts of Argentina. And malnutrition is A norm. 

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    "We have the political will to advance but it doesn't depend on us alone, but also on the provinces, Jimena Psathakis, the president of the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

    "We believe that most of the governors want to move forward with this issue because we are talking about people that are extremely vulnerable," she said.

    People in el Campo del 20 continue to wait.

    They say the province has done nothing but persecute them and that is why they are asking for the national government to intervene.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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