MAC: Mines and Communities

Mapuches Accuse Benetton of Seeking Gold on Their Land

Published by MAC on 2004-08-19

Mapuches Accuse Benetton of Seeking Gold on Their Land

Marcela Valente, IPS News

19th August 2004

[Spanish Version (IPS News): Mapuches acusan a Benetton de buscar oro en sus tierras Marcela Valente - Indígenas mapuches de Argentina denunciaron este jueves que el grupo italiano de la vestimenta Benetton, dueño de 970.000 hectáreas en el sur de este país, posee una compañía minera que encontró oro en un terreno habitado por una familia de esa etnia, desalojada en mayo por la justicia.]

Mapuche Indians in Argentina denounced Thursday that the Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton, which bought up 970,000 hectares in the southern part of the country, owns a mining company that found gold on land that a Mapuche family was evicted from by the courts in May.

Buenos Aires - Mapuche Indians in Argentina denounced Thursday that the Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton, which bought up 970,000 hectares in the southern part of the country, owns a mining company that found gold on land that a Mapuche family was evicted from by the courts in May.

Mauro Millán, with the 11 de Octubre Mapuche-Tehuelche Organisation, told IPS that the discovery "proves Benetton's real interest in that area -- an interest that has little to do with ecology and is not limited to sheep farming and reforestation, as they claimed."

In October 2002, Benetton kicked the Curiñanco-Nahuelquirs, a poor Mapuche family, off of 250 hectares of marginal, hilly land in Cordón de Leleque, in the southern province of Chubut, 1,500 km southwest of Buenos Aires.

And last May, a court in that province, which is located in the region of Patagonia, formally awarded the land to the originally British-owned Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino, which was acquired by Benetton in 1991.

The Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino was founded in the late 19th century with British capital on that portion of land, which was given to the company as a "gift" from the Argentine government, although it was the ancestral territory of Mapuche indigenous people.

In the May verdict, the court found that the land belonged to the Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino, and formally evicted the Mapuche family.

Argentine Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel accused the chairman and founder of the Italian company, Luciano Benetton, of creating an "unproductive medieval latifundium" (large landed estate) in Argentina, in a letter published by the Italian daily La Repubblica.

In a letter in the same newspaper, Benetton defended itself by arguing that the company's investments in Argentina were generating "development and jobs."

Now the Mapuche-Tehuelche Organisation says it has discovered that the Compañía Minera Sud Argentina, created in 2003, had explored for gold and other precious minerals on at least 140 spots on the land from which the Curiñanco-Nahuelquir family was evicted.

That mining company has its offices in the same building where Benetton's Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino is based, and the two firms have overlapping boards of directors.

The Mapuche organisation and the "Self-Organised Residents for 'No' to Mining", a community group in Esquel, a city in the province that has been fighting for two years to keep out a Canadian mining company, presented the report, complete with mining maps, in Chubut on Thursday.

Millán presented maps showing the spots where the mining company has carried out exploration on the property, along with other elements of the investigation.

He said the company's interest in the land is focused on the exploitation of minerals, which the people of Esquel are fighting due to the pollution and environmental damages caused by gold mining.

Some 200,000 Mapuches live in Patagonia, which encompasses the provinces of Río Negro, Neuquén, Chubut and Santa Cruz. According to estimates by the "Equipo Nacional de Pastoral Aborigen", a Catholic Church group, 94 percent of them have no title to the land where they live, which has been occupied by indigenous people for centuries.

The Argentine constitution, amended in 1994, recognises indigenous peoples' ownership rights to the land that they have traditionally occupied, as well as their right to title deeds to the property, which cannot be taken from them.

But activists and indigenous people, who according to unofficial estimates number between 800,000 and two million out of a total population of 37 million, say that right is not respected.

"In Argentina, the sale of land with people living on it is frequent," said Millán.

He also recalled a late 19th century military offensive in southern Argentina, the "Conquest of the Desert", when the indigenous people were nearly exterminated, and pointed out that the 1976-1983 military dictatorship systematically seized Mapuche lands.

But "Now the Mapuche people are stronger, and are opposing such attempts," he added.

Earlier this month, a judge in the province of Río Negro recognised the Mapuches' right to remain on the land that they have occupied since before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas in the 15th century, in response to a lawsuit brought by a landholder who claimed ownership of property where a Mapuche family is living.

In the lawsuit, the landowner showed a title deed issued by the provincial government in the 1990s.

But the judge ruled that the Mapuche family formed part of the Kom Kiñé Mu community, who had been living there since even before the creation of the Argentine state.

In his decision, he also pointed out that former president Julio Roca (1880-1886 and 1898-1904), who led the brutal "Conquest of the Desert" campaign against Indians in southern Argentina, had granted the land claimed today by the landowner to a group of Mapuche Indians in 1900 -- just as he had made a gift of land to the predecessor of the Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino.

In his verdict, the judge recalled that Mapuche chief Ancalao was given the land as a reward for his cooperation in the "Conquest of the Desert" military campaign that incorporated Patagonia, which was fiercely defended by other indigenous groups, into Argentina.

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