Mapuches excluded from the ‘United Colours’
The Invisible Colours of Benetton
Document - 10th June 2004
The territorial conflict between the Mapuche - the original inhabitants of the land located in the southern part of Argentina and Chile- and the Italian Group Benetton came to public attention after a number of Mapuche families discovered that their ancestral lands apparently no longer belonged to them.The problem has worsened in recent months, after the Southern Argentinian Land Company, belonging to Benetton, used the Argentinian legal system to expel the families from their land.
The last of these evictions took place on 31 May, involving the family Atilio Curinaco and Rosa Rua Nahuelquir, who had returned to the land of their grandparents and were then accused by the company of squatting. In Esquel, a town located 1,160 kilometres to the south of Buenos Aires, a judge called Jorge Eyo then found against the family and supported the company’s claim.
The murky dealings of Benetton
Over the last ten years Benetton has acquired 900,000 hectares of land in the Patagonian provinces of Neuquen, Rio Negro, Chubut and Santa Cruz and has since proceeded to fence off the area and evict the inhabitants. This is to allow them to graze their sheep and so satisfy the demand for wool generated by their textile industry. The emphasis is on low cost production, cheap labour and high profits.
Benetton bought the land from the Southern Argentinian Land Company (S.A.L.C.), whose original legal right to it has always been questioned by the Mapuche. Their position is now being supported by the lawyers defending the affected families.
The S.A.L.C.’ s case has been further weakened by the strong current of public opinion in Argentina, particularly in the Patagonian provinces, arguing for the legal title of the S.A.L.C. and other anonymous societies to be extinguished and the lands in their possession restored to their legitimate owners as an act of justice and historical reparation towards the Mapuche people of Pehuelche (Mapuche ancestral lands of Argentina).
Public petitions are being raised to be sent to both central and local government complaining about the lack of transparency regarding the operations of these anonymous societies, as no-one knows who the owners or directors are and yet they control enormous areas of land while the Mapuche and other sections of society live in extreme poverty.
Lawyers defending the Mapuche have found legal documents which corroborate the Mapuche’s persistent protests about the arbitary and illegal occupation of their territory by landowners, anonymous societies and the Argentinian state.
History of the Mapuche’s Territorial Conflict
For nearly 100 years Spain fought a violent colonialist war against the Mapuche people but failed to defeat them and was finally forced to recognise the frontier which had been officially established in the Treaty of Killen of 1641. With this, the Mapuche nation became the first and only indigenous nation in Latin America whose independence was recognised by the then more powerful European nation.
When Chile and Argentina declared independence from Spain in 1810, the ‘Wallmapu’ or Mapuche territory was an independent nation under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the Mapuche people.
The territory was then, however, annexed by the Argentinian Republic after a colonialist war which started in the middle of the 1870’s and ended with the defeat of the Mapuche in 1885. This military campaign was known as the ‘Conquest of the Desert’, the object of which was to wipe out the Mapuche population in order to take control of their land and natural resources.
With the military defeat of the Mapuche and the occupation of the
Puelmapu, the triumphant Argentinian state proceeded to share out the
Mapuche territory. Enormous estates were created, some legally under
decree, others semi-legally and others in open contravention of the
colonialist laws of the era. In 1891, ten families of English origin
formed a society which they called the Southern Argentinian Land Company
Ltd, a company which was later transformed into an
A call to conscience
The Mapuche people of the Puelmapu have had to endure, since the occupation of their territory, one of the worst persecutions known in Latin American history. This started with the genocide of their people during the Conquest of the Desert and then continued with a gradual campaign to exterminate the culture of the survivors. With the aim of destroying any vestige of the indigenous way of life through a brutal process of assimilation, many were taken into the army, while others were kidnapped and transported to Buenos Aires to be distributed as objects to families and individuals of European origin. This distribution took place in the El Retiro district of the Argentinian capital, where they were ‘adopted’ – according to the official version – for domestic work, with the status of slaves.
Once the military campaign was over, Argentinian colonists contracted mercenaries to relentlessly pursue Mapuche people, and who received money in direct proportion to the amount of people they killed. Their social organisation and traditional authorities were also attacked; the tombs of their heroes were desecrated and exhibited in museums as war trophies; their indigenous names were banned and even the mention of Mapuche words was censured. Historians who write about the war justifying both the annexation of the territory and the genocide of the Mapuche people, have racist attitudes and many themselves have personal economic interests in the region.
Currently, these same kinds of people who call themselves historians are collaborating with Benetton in order to also appropriate the history of the Mapuche people. In fact, in the Museum of Leleque, which is supported by Benetton, the regional entities of the Mapuche nation of the Puelmapu, such as Williche, Tehuelche, Rankelche, Pewenche etc, are somehow invisible to these historians who refer instead to the Mapuche in a pejorative way, using words such as ‘indians’, ‘natives’ and ‘autochthonous’.
In this modern day and age, the Mapuche people still continue to demand respect for their rights as a people and the restitution of their territory and they continue to claim the right to live in the land of their ancestors. This is a land which by natural and historical right belongs to them, a right which has never been renounced and never will be renounced until justice is done. Their demands are set out in accordance with established national and international regulations.
The following points highlight the legal basis for their protests:
1. Benetton has failed to respect the legal requirements regarding the operation of European companies investing in developing countries which are contained in the Codes of Conduct of the European Union (Resolution 15/11/99).
2. The Mapuche were dispossessed of their ancestral lands in contravention of article 75 paragraph 17 of the National Constitution of Argentina of 1853/1994. ‘’This recognises the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous peoples and the communal possession and ownership of the lands which they traditionally occupy and regulates the distribution of other lands suitable for human development’’; It states that ‘’none of these lands are disposable or transferable nor should they be subject to encumbrances or sequestration’’.
3. To deny Mapuche communities their means of economic subsistence violates articles 14 and 17 of Law 24.071 ratified in Covention 169 of the I.L.O. (International Labour Organisation) on indigenous peoples, in which states undertake to recognise indigenous peoples and their right to ownership of lands which they have traditionally occupied, further, ‘’States also take it upon themselves to take measures to safeguard the right of indigenous peoples to use lands which are not inhabited exclusively by them, but to which they have traditionally had access for both their traditional activities and activites providing economic subsistence’’.
In light of these facts, we request the following:
1. An investigation into the legal foundation of the formation of the Southern Argentinian Land Company, now owned by Benetton.
2. An exploration of possible initiatives to allow for a political solution to the territorial problem which affects the Mapuche people, taking into account the fact that the current State Law appears not to be enforced and fails to sufficiently consider the rights and interests of the Mapuche people.
3. The territory in dispute should be restored to Mapuche communities, particularly the territory acquired illegally by Benetton.