April 24, 2007
The True Colours of Benetton: Mapuches Want Back Their Land.

by Sebastián Ochoa

Abridged and translated from Spanish by Supriyo Chatterjee The article was published in La Pagina/12, Argentina, on 22 April 2007.

[Translator’s Note: Even as the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile are facing increasing repression, members of the same tribe in Argentina have occupied a small part of the thousands of hectares of land occupied by the high priest of the fashion industry, the Benetton family. This report details the harsh everyday reality of the Mapuches trying to reclaim the land from which they were evicted with enormous bloodshed by the Spanish colonialists and their Creole descendants.]

The day starts with the grateful shouts of “jey-jey-jey-jey”, made with open arms towards the mountains of the east, where the sun starts to appear. The ceremony is completed in front of the “pillán kutral”, the heart of the community as the activists define it. Sacred fire would be an approximate translation. In Santa Rosa Leleque, the pillán kutral is burning since February 14 when thirty Mapuche men women and children returned through the wires to declare 535 hectares as recovered Mapuche territory.

The fire, that illuminates ancestral force, is in a circle of stones and atop two months of ashes. It demands absolute respect: throwing cigarette butts, tea bags or garbage into it is not allowed. It only gives light and warmth. There is a fire pit for cooking, marked out by a stone wall. This fundamental element of Mapuche religion has not escaped the conflict that the community has with the South Argentina Land Company, the figurehead of the Benetton group that has fenced off 965,000 hectares. A week ago, the judiciary prevented the community from lighting fires till the legal fight was resolved. So that nobody can say that the institutions lack faith, bonfires are allowed only is the wood is brought in from outside. The Mapuches think the measure “is cruel. They have decreed this just when winter is setting in”.

Judge Omar Magallanes was responding to a petition from the Benetton lawyers. The same measure prohibited the ten families of the community from building homes. That makes Santa Rosa Leleque a conglomerate of igloo-like tents, always too thin for the temperatures that inevitably fall below zero at night. For now, the only construction is a structure for keeping the flour, herbs, noodles, jams, fried cakes and tinned food given away by people nearby and altruistic tourists. Still not built are 700 metres of the community house because the judiciary – winka or white institution as it is called in Leleque – has so decided.

Some day ago, a judge, Guillermo Palmieri, and his briefcase crossed the fence. There they received the 30 judicial notices, one for each of the inhabitants of Santa Rose. With this strategy the judiciary de-recognised the community. By prohibiting the fire, “ they wanted that we get tired and go away. It snowed and we do not even have a small house. But this is the fight that we have always waited for, and it does not bother us that they have stopped us from making fire and from getting wood,” says Rosa Nahuelquir, who together with her husband, Atilio Curiñanco, is fighting since 2002 a modern desert campaign. That year, the pair was evicted by judicial order from the land they claim as their own.

What is called the desert is, no exaggeration, the most beautiful place in the world. Mountains brushed with snow that comes down in streams, land waiting to be filled up with vegetables and or ladybirds – this is the dream of Atillio. Early on in the day, he and Luis Millan, with pick and shovel, walked towards the mountains for the bed of a stream dry since 2002, when the forces of order ruined it, like everything constructed by the Nahuelguir-Curiñaco pair. That stream watered a sector of land ideal for cultivation. “These policemen think we are going to get fatigued,” says Atillio.

There is full employment at Santa Rosa. If one is not making channels for water, one has to look for wood. Trees are sacred to the Mapuches, and so they do not cut them down. They collect only the fallen wood. If they have to fell a tree – or something alive – they first ask permission from the mapu (land).

For the Mapuches getting their land back is like regaining their spirituality. From getting up till they go to sleep, they worship the land. And even when they sleep, the mapu speaks to them in their dreams… the messages are so clear that it does not occur to anybody to disobey them. Mapuzungun is the language that the earth gave to the humans so that they could communicate with her. Many are convinced that the grief of the Mapuche people started when they stopped communication with her, when they became creolised. It is for this that they could not resist since 1879 the guns of the Argentinean army directed by (the hundred pesos) President Julio Argentino Roca. Recuperating the land will realise the shouts at the end of each political meeting: “marichi weu”, we will win ten times over.

Jonathan Márquez assumed the Mapuche way in his adolescence. His grandfather was a chief in Neuquén (Argentinean province) but his parents quickly adapted to the ways of the city. How did he find himself again? “ The dreams. You are in places where you feel your already were. And there comes a time when you know what to do. I would dream of places being in places like this or in a ceremony. It is connected to our ancestors. It is very uncommon. But you witness things that cannot be explained.” Newen, as the son of Jonathan and Daisy is known, walks to the barriers with his dummy as a steering wheel. His father, of 25 years, wants to send a message “to the Mapuches who do not see themselves as Mapuches – ‘Do not be seduced by modern life, it is a vacuous life... I study and work in the city but do not forget who I am”’.

Mauro Millán of the organisation, 11th of October and part of the community, maintains, “We are not asking for land, we already have it. We ask they let us live in peace. But the state and Benetton hinder us from cooking, making fire, feeding ourselves… Without a political decision, this is going to lead to one racist judge – and they abound in Patagonia – putting up a bait for dislodging us. We want to avoid violence. Let us hope it never happens… We want that they understand that they have to return (the land) to us and let us stay. We are not going to let them dislodge us.”