Mapuche Tribe Fights to Remove Benetton From Homeland
Nov. 21, 2005 (Bloomberg)
By Daniel Helft and Eliana Raszewski
Benetton Group SpA, the Italian apparel maker whose advertising celebrates diversity, is being accused by Argentina 's Mapuche Indians of trying to bury the tribe's heritage.
Benetton, the largest landowner in Patagonia, a barren, windswept region that spans Argentina and Chile , said this month it will set aside 75 square kilometers (30 square miles) for the Indians. The Mapuches, who number about 40,000, claim the government stole the land from them in the 19th century.
``We don't want or need Benetton's donation,'' Rosa Chiquichano, a lawmaker in Patagonia's Chubut province and a descendant of the indigenous Mapuche and Tehuelche population, said in an interview from Esquel, Argentina. ``We want a restitution of our land. We want reparation for the land that was taken away from us.''
The dispute pits the survivors of Indian tribes whose lands were seized by the government in 1878 against a company whose advertising conveys a commitment to social issues and racial equality. Campaigns to publicize the United Colors of Benetton brand included images of condoms of different colors and a white baby nursing at a black woman's breast.
Benetton, which obtains 20 percent of its wool from sheep grazing on the land in Patagonia , says the Mapuches are utilizing the company's name to grab attention in a long- standing dispute that extends beyond its lands.
``The Benetton name has been effectively used to bring attention to the issue of the land and its indigenous people in Argentina ,'' said Federico Sartor, the company's spokesman in Ponzano Veneto , Italy . ``Benetton has little to do with this issue. We've never expropriated land from anyone.''
The tribe, estimated at about 1.5 million by 15th century Spanish conquerors, was defeated in the Desert Campaign of 1878, in which Argentina 's army cleared land for agriculture and livestock, according to a history published by the Universidad de Chile. War Minister Julio A. Roca, who later became president of Argentina , led the government troops.
The Mapuches have been impoverished and nomadic rural workers since, eking a living from agriculture and cattle.
The seeds of the current dispute date to 1991, when Luciano Benetton bought the land from Compania Tierras del Sud Argentino SA, becoming one of the biggest landowners in Argentina . The company raises 16,000 head of cattle and 280,000 sheep. It produces 1.3 million kilograms (2.9 million pounds) of wool annually. Last year, Benetton was Argentina 's largest wool producer.
Benetton, which owns 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) through holding company Edizione Holding SpA, became a focus for Indian claims in 2002 after the company won a lawsuit to evict an unemployed Mapuche couple that settled on 385 hectares of Benetton land to raise goats and grow vegetables. Police enforcing the judgment tore down the couple's house and confiscated their oxen and plough.
The eviction drew attention in Europe in July 2004, when the Italian press published a letter in which Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his defense of human rights in Argentina, accused Benetton Chief Executive Luciano Benetton of having the ``same mentality as the conquistadors.''
Benetton made an overture to the Mapuches, offering Esquivel 2,500 hectares of land in Patagonia two days before a Nov. 8, 2004, meeting of Nobel laureates in Rome . Esquivel turned it down, saying he couldn't assume responsibility for land that belonged to the Mapuches.
This month, Benetton raised the offer to 7,500 hectares, or 0.7 percent of the company's total holdings, a donation that it plans to make in January, channeled through the Chubut provincial government.
``The gift is a symbolic gesture of social responsibility,'' the company said in a Nov. 16 statement.
``Benetton's best gesture would be to let us work in our plot of land instead of coming up with all these gifts,'' Rosa Nahuelquir, the wife in the evicted couple, said in an interview. ``That's what we need. That's where our hope and our work is.''
Benetton set up a Web site, http://www.benettontalk.com , this month to discuss issues raised in the dispute. The site says the company has made several goodwill gestures toward the indigenous communities. In 1997, the company invested $800,000 to set up a museum of Mapuche history in the village of Leleque in Chubut .
Nahuelquir criticized the museum initiative, saying the Benetton family ``knows nothing of our culture. They do those things for publicity and to defend the company from its bad neighbor attitude.''