Benetton eviction sparks land row
Storm of protest over evictions from Argentina farm
John Hooper in Rome - Wednesday July 14, 2004
Benetton's advertisements have always conveyed
the idea that buying one of their woollies would somehow contribute
to racial understanding
and the welfare of humanity. There is probably no firm on earth more
sensitive to allegations of putting profit before compassion and
trampling on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Mr Pérez Esquivel accused him of behaving "with the same mentality as the conquistadores" and added: "You don't need weapons to achieve your objectives. But you kill in the same way, using money."
His tirade yesterday elicited a second open letter from Mr Benetton published in the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. He thanked Mr Pérez Esquivel for his "frank and direct" message, agreed to his suggestion of a meeting, but refused to budge from his stance.
"We have simply followed the economic rules we believe in," said Mr Benetton, whose family, according to Forbes, is the owner of the world's 100th biggest private fortune.
At the origin of this potentially immensely damaging row is a plot of land in ruggedly beautiful Patagonia that covers just 385 hectares of the 900,000 hectares the Benettons own in Argentina. The Italian family's holding company acquired vast expanses in 1991 at a time when many foreigners were drawn to windswept Patagonia by the combination of a newly-liberalised economy and rock-bottom land prices.
Much of the wool in Benetton sweaters began its life on the backs of sheep reared on the family's Patagonian estates.
In 2002, a Mapuche couple, Atilio Curinanco and Rosa Naheulquir, and their four children moved on to a plot, which, it has since been decided, falls within one of the Italian firm's five farms. Mr Curinanco and his wife claimed that, after waiting for six months for an official response to their application for settlement rights, they were given a verbal go-ahead by government officials.
According to Argentine media reports, the couple ploughed and planted, repaired fences and built a small house. But after 38 days police arrived to evict them. Their plough and oxen were seized.
On May 31, following a hearing televised live on nationwide TV, a judge in the southern province of Chubut ruled against the couple and in favour of the Italian billionaires. He had earlier dismissed criminal charges brought against Mr Curinanco and his wife of illegal occupation.
Mr Benetton said yesterday the case "raises moral and philosophical questions as ancient as the world". The Benetton family acquired its land in the area by buying a company that had owned it since the 1890s.
The judge ruled that its title took precedence over the Mapuches' ancestral rights. But the family's supporters argue that the Argentine constitution guarantees indigenous peoples the possession of land they have traditionally occupied.
In this case the issue of possession is particularly poignant. The land currently owned by the Benettons was originally given to a British-owned firm in 1896 after a bloody military campaign in which thousands of indigenous people were killed or driven out.
After the hearing, Mauro Millan, an indigenous leader, said: "Laws are for the 'huincas' [whites]. For us, democracy has yet to arrive."
Striking a similarly philosophical note, Mr Pérez Esquivel asked Mr Benetton: "Who bought the land from God?" He added: "Local people call your ranch 'The Cage'. Wired in and closed off, it has trapped the winds, the clouds, the stars, the sun and the moon. Life has disappeared, because everything has been reduced to its economic worth."
But in his reply yesterday, Benetton's chairman, a former senator for the middle-of-the-road Republican party, hit back: "In this earthly and now globalised world, physical property, like intellectual property, belongs to whoever can build it up with skill and industry, favouring the growth and development of others."
Interviewed by La Repubblica, Mr Pérez Esquivel said his real enemy was not Benetton, but the Argentine state which had given away land belonging to the Mapuches in the first place.
However, he added: "Luciano Benetton has to understand that he has been caught up in an injustice." He warned that the judicial ruling would not put an end to the row.
"The Mapuche community is ready to join battle. We shall take this case to the inter-American court of justice and to all the international bodies that look after human rights."