Fashion giant in Mapuche land fight
Benetton pressured to return Patagonian land to Argentina's Mapuche Indians.
Last Modified: 24 Jun 2007 12:25 GMT
Luis Millan returned to the Patagonian land after being evicted, and said he would remain there until he dies

A land dispute has pitted Argentine Mapuche Indians against fashion giant Benetton in Argentine Patagonia.


A dozen Mapuche Indians have taken up residence on more than 534 hectares of the disputed land, claiming that legally and historically it belongs to them.

Luis Millan, a 65-year-old Mapuche Indian, who moved on to the land, said: "For years we remained silent ... we were oppressed, but not any more... The law gives us the right to have this land, but nobody respects it.


"We are here to stay ... and I will only leave when I'm dead... My wife is buried in Mapuche land and I will be buried too."

The dispute started in 2002, when a Mapuche family was accused of settling illegally on the land and evicted. But Millan and other members of his community have returned despite the deprived conditions in which they have to live.


The Mapuches started building homes on the land, but stopped when the government intervened with a law that forbade them from modifying the landscape in any way.


Exclusive report

Watch Teresa Bo's exclusive report from Patagonia

The land was given to a group of British citizens in 1889 by the Argentine government without the approval of the Mapuche Indians who were living on the land.


In 1991, Benetton bought more than 970,000 hectares from a British company.


With that purchase, Italian company inherited a huge problem, a lawyer representing the Mapuches says.


Fernando Kosinsky said: "We have papers to prove that the land given to the British in 1889 was not measured correctly.


"They gave them [Benetton] 19,000 hectares more than they should have. We are asking Benetton to measure the land again so that whatever is outside the initial gift by the Argentine government is left for the Mapuches."


Constitutional right


The Argentine constitution guarantees indigenous communities the right to reclaim land they can prove historically belonged to them, but few have seen any benefits from the clause.


Kosinsky said that simply handing land over to the Mapuches uncontested could result in a number of consequences: "Giving the Mapuches a piece of land is like opening Pandora's Box.


"Most of the land was not measured correctly back in the 1800s. We should start reviewing the contracts of the past and give the Indians what belongs to them."


Lawyers have suggested reviewing historical
contracts and giving back land to the Indians
Reviewing land contracts is a double-edged sword for the Argentine government, especially in an area where landowners such as Ted Turner, the Benettons and other big players, have invested large sums in land ownership contracts.


So far, the law has ruled in favour of Benetton. But for Millan's son, Mauro, keeping the land is a way of ensuring their survival.


"For years, the Mapuches were persecuted and killed. The Argentinian government tried to exterminate us in the 1800s.


"During the military dictatorship we were not even able to perform our ceremonies. Now it's our time to fight back and we won't leave what the law calls Benetton's land. It's ours by right."

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