Interview with Atilio Curinanco
By Pauline Bartolone - Esquel, Chubut, November, 2003.
Atilio Curinanco is currently battling a law suit by the Benetton corporation for "usurping land" in the Chubut Province. Below is an interview about their case, as well as about the evictions threats in Leleque, the village where Atilio grew up.
-What does the Benetton Corporation mean to the Mapuche in Patagonia?
The truth is, in our eyes [Benneton] is the biggest, most powerful landowner, and it's not what they say it is. They don't help the indigenous people and all that, it's totally the opposite. It's the opposite because what they did to me was just testing their strength, and what they really want is to eliminate everyone (everything?). This lawsuit I have to deal with, it's nothing to laugh at. And besides, they've closed neighboring roads, they close every reservation (indian reservation or animal/natural reserve?) they get their hands on. They don't let us, the people that they used to give free reign, now they don't let them hunt, they don't let them fish, they don't sell them any meat. There's no way for them to lead a normal life. They're even accompanied by the police everywhere they go.
-What's your personal story with Benetton?
My personal story starts with my idea for starting a family business in the place, the place where we were living. I know that place because I was born there and Benetton never used it. Nobody took responsibility for that place. It's a little bit before you get to the road. If you have a chance to get a good look at the place, before the road, it was already very separate from what Benetton occupies now. So one day we presented Jack with a note, he's the one that handles government land. We didn't get an answer for 7 or 8 months, no response at all. So finally one day we decided, we asked for permission to settle there, since it was understood that it was government land, but they didn't give us a title or anything because they had to see the improvements. So before going to occupy the place we went to present our case to the police since we didn't have authorization signed by Jack or anything, so we didn't want to make any mistakes. But in their eyes it WAS a mistake. So we started to take all the things we were going to set up there, a simple house. Well, the same day we presented our case to the police, they let us in so long as we didn't damage anything. We didn't cut any wire fences, we didn't put up a gate, go in at night, or secretly, or put up any houses out of sight. We even waited for anybody that might show up with questions or with a document proving ownership or the right to use the land, but nobody ever came. The only thing that arrived was the lawsuit, and we're still dealing with that. So, we were on the land for about two months, maybe a little more, and in that time we dug irrigation ditches and planted all kinds of vegetables, fruit trees, strawberries. And well, we made a lot of progress, as if we'd been there a year or a year and a half. When they came to kick us out, the police were surprised by how much we'd accomplished.
-So two months after being on the Santa Rosa property, you were evicted. Then what happened?
The idea was to invest the savings we had, and we invested it, without a doubt. But by now we lost it. We lost a lot. We lost materials. They confiscated everything. They didn't let us touch a thing. And we got our stuff back two months later, thanks to Lawyer Macayo's petition. But we had to keep spending money, to pay for a truck. And after hauling our stuff among other things, we lost everything because it was all ruined. The thing was, they didn't let us touch anything, and that wire fence that was abandoned, Benneton fixed it all up.
-Was going to the Santa Rosa property a political act?
No no no, in the beginning, I'm telling you, we acted independently. Everything we did, we did on our own. We didn't even ask for help from the municipality, or the province, we didn't ask anyone for help.
-Do you ask anything of Benetton?
We asked for the piece of land, for them to drop the lawsuit, and, well, leave everybody else alone. They need to get their act together, because they are definitely the ones at fault. Why did a whole year go by? They try all kinds of maneuvers, they lied a thousand times in the papers they filed, trying to crush us. They even said they were going to take away our houses, that they were going to take away what little we have. According to the lawyer. They're full of threats. But little by little our self-confidence has grown a lot.
-What hopes do you have to get the Santa Rosa property back?
If they come to some kind of agreement, there's no doubt that we'll be able to get it back. But if not, there's not much chance. We can see with our own eyes how little chance there is. One guy alone can't stand up to something that powerful. But if our indigenous brothers decide to help, that'll make a big difference. With their help, we'll get it back. Maybe not completely, but we will.
-Does the Argentine Government provided you any support?
Argentine politicians always talk about projects that give us some hope. Many years have gone by since they made their promises, and all this is still happening. We don't trust them anymore, that they're going to improve things, that they're going to support us, that the same things won't happen all over again. Over the years we've heard a lot of promises. But instead of getting better, things have gotten worse. Take my case, I'm settling a piece of land that my grandparents settled long before them, long before Benetton, long before any of this. And they didn't just settle there, they settled all over Patagonia. They've even lived in lands beyond Patagonia. They're all our ancestors, if you can believe it.
-Are there any laws that protect Mapuche people? Give them land rights?
The law, accord (convenio) number 169 is what protects us, but in the province of Chubut it doesn't. There's absolutely nothing for us, no support at all, because if there were this wouldn't be such a hard battle, would it? We found out about all this, about the accord, from the October 11th organization. After awhile we asked them for some information, and they came out in support of our cause.
-Leleque is a community built around a railroad station, just across the road from Santa Rosa, and it is where you grew up. It is also surrounded by Benetton property. Now it is under threat of evction from the state, who wants to create a tourist project. Does Benetton have a hand in this?
I think the Benneton company does whatever it wants. And on top of that there are people that help them out, for no good. Because they know that life isn't easy, it isn't easy for the folks that live there now. Because wherever you go, people have to work, and work is hard to find. In the city life is rough, it's rougher than back there. You can take my word on that because I grew up and made my life there. I know It's always better to live in one of their places so long as there are jobs. I'm not talking about anything wonderful, just enough to get by. If you come to the city you have to pay rent, or if not that you have to buy a house, a very modest house, not a nice one. Life, life is rough. All those, Bennetton, McDonald, the ones that are actually pulling the strings, the directors of the railroad, they all have to take a look at the situation, they need to realize that [the indigenous people] are human too. And they don't have the same kind of power that [those companies] have. They have to look and see that if kids are going to a school, instead of destroying that school they should improve it. They should improve it in every sense of the word, a complete renovation. And the train, well, if it starts running again and brings tourists like they say it will, then our people will be better off. If they want to hire people for a branch there, it should be people that have always lived there. I figure it will cause a lot of suffering if they manage to do what they're planning to. And for us it would be, they're destroying something that we've been working towards with our sweat and blood. We're talking about something that doesn't conjure up happy memories of life there.
-What do you hope will happen in Leleque?
Well I hope the people don't leave that land. I hope that instead of being destroyed it's rebuilt. If a town gets established some day, that would be very special for me. It would almost be like a symbol of my life. And if I don't live to see it, I hope someone lives on there, whether they're family or not, familiar faces at least. And that they can make a life there for themselves.
-What was it like for the Mapuche before evictions?
Life isn't the same anymore, it's a lot more difficult like I was telling you earlier today. The Mapuches are accustomed to living in the country, in a place where they can make a life for themselves and be self-sustaining. Like our grandfathers did, they made a life for themselves without being told what to do, they made a living. They weren't protected by the government like now, they give us a little bit of food. As you can imagine, a small bag of food doesn't last the whole month let alone a year. So they made their life without any help, they lived a normal life, no problems. If something came up that they didn't know how to do, they figured it out. As far as I know, they didn't drink alcohol. White people are the ones that brought alcoholism. It's all wrapped up with their bad intentions. Often times a Mapuche would start drinking, and trade in the fruits of their labor for a bottle of wine or ten. And all that was to their advantage.
-Why are the Mapuche being evicted in Patagonia?
Well, on the subject of evictions, it all has to do with this incredible, let's say, moral force they're trying to impose on us. And besides, we don't have the kind of money they have, so it's a combination of factors. Another thing, they're backed by our courts, our courts do all kinds of things in their favor. So our people have become very timid.We often don't hear a word from the judges, the police, or the military, but the landowner raises a stink, and we're just left there... That's how it happened to me, that's how all this happens to marginalized people, a lot just gets ignored. So you can just imagine, if a landowner does that and wins against a poor person, you can imagine the combined power of the police and the judge and all. That's how they can do it so easily. Maybe all this could still turn around, and folks could stand up for themselves. I don't see any other way. And they have to trust in the right people. Because often our people, the Mapuches, our brothers, they trust people that end up turning their backs on them. I don't know if this is happening to anybody else, but that's our situation.
-Are you going to keep struggling against evictions?
We are, that's what we've been trying to point out. And since from the beginning this land hasn't belonged to them, we're going to fight til the end, so it stays ours.
Translation by Curtis Graves
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