27. Tierra Prometida – El periplo de los aborigenes Toba (Promised Land - The Journey of Aboriginal Toba)
Original music by Ramiro N Alvarez
From the documentary Tierra Prometida – El periplo de los aborigenes Toba (Promised Land - The Journey of Aboriginal Toba)
Directed by Jorge Luis Nuñez and Gustavo Giorgetti
Produced by Gabriel E. Jorge. NoRon Producciones (Argentina 2008)
Watch the documentary at http://intercontinentalcry.org/tierra-prometida-journey-of-the-indigenous-toba/
www.no-ron.com.ar / www.periplotoba.com.ar



The Toba of Argentina: a history in fragments


Fragment One: On Toba Cosmology

In Toba cosmology, the wind could not be defined – and neither could any other element – in an exclusively natural way, for in this culture the world is defined as unified/unifying and continuous; in other words, the separation between the natural and supernatural is untenable. The wind and its manifestations provide a passage for spirits; souls can thus wander around during dreams.

The four winds represent spatial orientations and temporal seasons. The idea is that history is written on the wind, including the past, present, and future: ‘The wind is where our history is written. Our memory lies in the wind. In the four angles, cardinal points, is where our secret resides. It is here where the lives of our ancestors are found. But one must discover, open his/her mind. Allow spirituality to penetrate oneself. The wind is what transmits and keeps our secrets. It is like a code; sometimes it consists of words. There are spirits of the wind. There was once a dance for the wind.’ (Toba leader’s assertion (as recorded by the author) October 10, 1998).

Source: The Interpretive Foundations of Culture: Quantum Aesthetics and Anthropology, by Graciela Elizabeth Bergallo, from The World of Quantum Culture, edited by Manuel J. Caro, John W. Murphy, Praeger Publishers 2002


Fragment Two: About Tierra Prometida / Promised Land

‘Promised Land’: Video Documentary Of Toba Indigenous People’

Promised Land chronicles the journey of a group of ethnic origin Toba who, ejected from their territory, cheated and forgotten, had to suffer the worst social disruption, subjected to a hostile reality, the promise of a better life for themselves and their children.

Driven from their place of origin, the Chaco forest of El Impenetrable, the Toba have not ceased in their quest for a future in dignity, struggling daily to preserve their culture, their beliefs, their language and lifestyle.

Ruben Sarmiento, Chief of the Toba Community ‘April 19’ tells the story of his tribe and the obstacles that they had to overcome once they settled in the port area of Dock Sud, Buenos Aires, one of the most polluted in the world. This geographical location south of the Federal Capital stands as the focus of discrimination, unemployment and crime. Despite being decimated by environmental aggression, violence and social exclusion, the group continued to believe in a future of freedom. State officials agree to give them a vacant lot.

The Toba [went] ahead, while formal approval is diluted in echoes.

Were they fooled again? Is it that [they will] never reach the promised land?

Source: Promised Land: Video Documentary Of Toba Indigenous People. In Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources, September 27 2009


Fragment Three: Language and location


There are no current alternative names for the Toba, although Spanish colonisers used the collective term Guaycurú to refer to many indigenous communities inhabiting the Gran Chaco. The name frentones (‘large foreheads’ in Spanish) was in widespread use for eastern Toba bands in the early centuries of contact. The Toba call themselves Qomor Qom’pi (people).


The Toba have inhabited mostly the southeastern and central areas of the Argentine Gran Chaco. The Gran Chaco is a vast region spanning 1,000,000 km2 through Western Paraguay, Eastern Bolivia, and Northeastern Argentina. It is characterised by a patchwork of savannah grasslands and semi-arid forests, with forests along rivers banks […] The Toba belong to the Guaycurú linguistic family, which also encompasses the Pilagá, the Mocoví, and the Mbayá (Caduveo) (Mason, 1963). However, the number of languages and dialects in what is collectively known as the ‘Toba’ language is still controversial (Braunstein, personal communication). There are at least four mutually unintelligible languages spoken by Toba groups in the Gran Chaco. For example, even when sharing the same Guaycurúan language roots, eastern and western Argentine Toba do not understand each other when they meet (Mendoza, in press).


European soldiers wrote about the Gran Chaco Indians as early as in the mid 1500s (Schmidel, 1970). However, it was not until the early 1900s that ethnographic work began to be published on the Gran Chaco Indians.

Source: Argentine Toba, by Claudia R.Valeggia and Florencia Tola. Published in Ember, Volume 2. 03
www.sas.upenn.edu/~valeggia/pdf%20papers/Ember (Vol.2)-03.pdf


Fragment Four: ‘to the forests.’

Toba Indians

One of the few still unconquered savage tribes of the great Chaco wilderness of South America, and notable alike for their persistent hostility to the white man […]

Physically they are tall and well-built, with fierce countenance, and from going constantly barefoot the soles of their feet are toughened to resist thorns and sharp rocks. Both sexes go nearly naked except when in the presence of strangers, and wear their hair long, the men confining it by means of a band or turban. On special occasions they wear shirts or skirts of skins or of woollen stuff, of their own weaving, from the sheep they now possess, together with head-dresses, belts, and wristlets of ostrich feathers. They tattoo their faces and upper bodies with vegetable dye. They live almost entirely by hunting and fishing, but raise a little corn. They have large herds of horses and are fine horsemen. The men are expert in the making of dug-out canoes and fish traps, while the women are expert potters and net weavers. Their huts are simple structures of willow branches covered with grass, sometimes large enough to have several compartments. Their weapons are the bow, lance, and wooden club, besides which they now have some guns. They bury the dead, the aged being sometimes killed by their own children from a feeling of pity for their helplessness. For the same reason, when a mother dies her infant is buried with her. Men have only one wife at a time. There is no head chief, the government resting principally with the old men. Little is known of their religion, which seems to consist chiefly of a special reverence for the sun and the rising moon, and the propitiation of a host of invisible spirits which are held responsible for sickness and other misfortunes. In war they are distinguished for their ferocity and barbarous cruelty, and are dreaded alike by settlers, travellers, and Christianised Indians throughout the whole northern Chaco frontier.

In the early colonisation period of the eighteenth century the Toba, with the Abipón and Mocoví, were among the most determined and constant enemies of the Argentine-Paraguayan settlements and missions, and hardly a half-year ever passed without a raid or retaliatory punitive expedition. On one occasion six hundred Toba attacked Dobrizhoffer’s mission, but were repelled by the missionary himself single-handed with the aid of his firearms, of which the savages were in deadly terror. The missionary received an arrow wound in the encounter. In 1756 a number of Toba and Mataco were gathered into the Mission of San Ignacio de Ledesma, on the Rio Grande tributary of the Vermejo, where they numbered 600 souls at the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. Some later attempt was made by the Franciscans to restore the Chaco missions, but with the end of Spanish rule the missions declined and the Indians scattered to the forests.

Source: The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913), by multiple editors http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Toba_Indians


Fragment Five: Warriors

The Toba not only fought against neighbouring tribes, but also against whites. Even though the first white colonists arrived at the Bolivian borders of Toba land in the 1600s, the criollos (whites of mixed European and Indian descent) did not thoroughly colonise the land on both margins of the river until the beginnings of the 1900s. The Toba fought against the penetration of the criollos as much as they could. Bolivian and Argentine officials who participated in military expeditions to the upper Pilcomasyo have recorded in vivid terms the battles of soldiers against coalitions of Toba warriors.

Toba active resistance to colonisation has earned them the title of ’ferocious warriors.’ In the early 1900s Koch (1902:3) wrote, ‘Even now, the words fire and murder are closely associated with the dreaded name ‘Toba.’ Despite the centuries-long efforts of the three states Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, the Toba are the absolute masters of a vast territory.’ From 1915 to 1918, Western Toba bands participated in a movement intended to drive white people from Toba land. After taking many lives from both parties, this ‘rebellion’ was suppressed by the Argentine army in cooperation with colonists. Since then, criollo cattle ranchers have fully occupied the land.’

Source: Peoples of the Gran Chaco, by Elmer S. Miller, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001


Fragment Six: Uprising

The Western Toba and other hunter-gatherers of the South American Gran Chaco managed to retain a certain degree of political autonomy well into the nineteenth century. Between 1915 and 1918, Western Toba, Wichí, and Pilagá warriors formed alliances to expel Argentine and Bolivian settlers from their traditional lands. The few authors who recorded this ‘rebellion’ failed to mention that the warriors’ active resistance to colonisation was rooted in a revitalisation movement comparable to other indigenous millenarian revivals. This new interpretation is based on oral stories collected in the field in the 1990s. The uprising, the doctrine of the charismatic shaman who fuelled the movement, and the outcomes of the clash with the Argentine Army are described herein. The prophet’s doctrine was rooted in a mythology of cosmic cataclysms. By following it, believers would be able to persuade Cadet’á to ‘have pity on them.’ The native concept of Cadet’á may belong to a cosmology that is earlier than the introduction of the biblical idea of ‘God, Our Father.’

Source: Western Toba Messianism and Resistance to Colonization, 1915-1918 (Abstract), by Marcela Mendoza, University of Memphis


Fragment Seven: Missionaries / Syncretism

Agricultural economic activity, the pressures brought to bear by ranchers and provincial authorities, and hostility among the Toba and the Mocoví triggered confrontations with the police in Napalpí in 1924. The friction was caused by attempts to force the natives to work in settlements where they had been congregated in reductions, obliging them to refrain from roaming freely about the province. In 1947 in Las Lomitas (Formosa), Toba, and Pilagá natives faced off with the police when they congregated to join the indigenous leader of a nativistic religious movement. Furthermore, the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia in 1933 modified the geopolitical map of the area.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Anglican influence made itself felt in the northwestern part of Formosa and on the Saltenian side of the Pilcomayo. Franciscan missionaries arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century and founded missions in the eastern part of Formosa. The sedentary and secular influences of these missions are evident in many of the settlements that have persisted, for example at the La Paz Mission (Anglican) and the Tacaaglé and Laishí missions (Franciscan). The wave of evangelical missions of the 1940s was a key factor in the appearance of syncretic indigenous religious organisations, like the Toba United Evangelical Church, which was organised at the beginning of 1960 in Chaco Province.’

Source: Toba – History and Cultural Relations, by Pablo G Wright (Translated by Ruth Gubler)


Fragment Eight: ‘Sanctuary!’

Many Toba were interested in the missionaries’ teachings not so much to convert to Christianity but to empower their capacity to understand a changing world. The missionaries, on the contrary, regarded schooling mainly as a tool for religious conversion.

In Great Britain the South American Missionary Society often portrayed its work in the Chaco as a source of light countering the darkness of indigenous heathenism. In this image, the dazzling beams of missionisation illuminate a native from an ‘untouched tribe’ grateful to receive the word of Christ. Yet missionaries in the Chaco knew that the relative success of their stations had little to do with spiritual enlightenment. By the 1930s the Argentinean army had curbed the most important expressions of indigenous unrest in the Chaco. Yet the Pilcomayo was the last region where small, highly mobile Pilaga and Nivacle groups occasionally clashed with the military. Troops attacked Nivacle who crossed the border into Argentinean territory and unleashed massacres in Pilaga hamlets to the southeast of Toba lands. The atrocities committed by the military created widespread terror in the region. A missionary noticed that among the Pilaga ‘consternation was general and great at the sight of a military uniform.’ This pattern of violence was having profound implications in the consolidation of Anglican missions as protected places that attracted previously dispersed populations. […] Toba living in smaller villages converged in Mision El Toba in moments of danger. Early in 1932, for instance, a group engaged in serious conflicts with Criollos and moved en masse to the mission, fearing an attack by the army. One of the members of the staff wrote, ‘They seem to look on the mission as a kind of sanctuary!’

Source: Landscapes of devils: tensions of place and memory in the Argentinean Chaco, by Gastón Gordillo, Duke University Press, 2004


Fragment Nine: ‘an ongoing loss’

Migration, which intensified with the economic crisis of the Chaco of the 1950s, took the form of a modified nomadism that occurs in the context of an extremely hostile coastal urban environment. Interethnic friction seems to be neutralised by syncretic religious ideology, which on a representational level, nullifies or dissembles the distinction between Qom and Doqshi. In settlements around cities there is an ongoing loss of ethnic identity, of language, and of rules of social organisation, which leads to a fusion with the lowest urban socioeconomic level.’

Source: Toba – History and Cultural Relations, by Pablo G Wright, translated by Ruth Gubler


Fragment Ten: ‘silent rebellion’

The violent process of colonisation in the Chaco, during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, required that the indigenous people modify their traditional way of life. The exploitation of sugar, tannin, and cotton placed this region under the economic control of foreign powers, thereby initiating social, ecological, and cultural changes that modified drastically the history of those who lived in this area.

One of these changes took the form of a neoshamanistic movement around the middle of the 1950s. The ceremonies that involved dancing, ecstasy, and dreams were not suspended during the periods of cutting, harvesting, and processing of the sugar cane, despite how the time cycles were altered in these societies by colonisation. Additionally, some of the youth in these movements became involved in the active struggle to recover and replenish the land.

That is, the neoshamanistic movement that still exists nowadays, became involved in the attempt to resist Western interference in these societies. Popular spirituality and religious language became a potent mixture in the ‘silent rebellion’ against colonialism.’

Source: The Interpretive Foundations of Culture: Quantum Aesthetics and Anthropology, by Graciela Elizabeth Bergallo, from The World of Quantum Culture, edited by Manuel J. Caro, John W. Murphy, Praeger Publishers 2002


Fragment Eleven: Indoctrination

The missionary work of various Christian denominations, with their proverbial arrogance for ‘the truth’ and their attendant scorn for traditional beliefs, has affected religious practices – to which music is closely linked – in a variety of ways. Some indigenous groups have stopped resisting conversion, others have completely abandoned their traditional beliefs, and some have created syncretic forms of worship in a desperate attempt to ‘recover a sense of belonging in the world’ (Miller, 1979), a feeling lost to the rigours of conquest and colonisation. The process of substitution of traditional religious values now under way for several decades, has significantly changed the musical patrimony of the Chaco’s native peoples, especially in settlements dominated by Protestant sects whose missionaries prohibited singing not related to the adopted faith.

Also forbidden were the traditional evening dances designed to encourage the meeting of prospective mates. In addition, some Protestant missionaries have forced those who own musical instruments to turn them over to the mission, thus symbolically renouncing their musical traditions and, consequently, their culture.

One common goal pursued by both Catholics and Protestants was the eradication of shamanism, since in the person of the shaman were subsumed most of the spiritual powers of the religious structure (shared today by the minister) and the control of the population’s health and well-being. For missionaries, the shaman’s leadership was the major obstacle to indoctrination.’

Source: Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: an encyclopaedic history, Volume 1, by Malena Kuss, University of Texas Press, 2004


Fragment Twelve: Controlling the Body

The persistent action of the missionaries as kade’ta, charismatic leaders, shaman like protectors, and teachers, gradually undermined the Toba’s initial resistance to ‘religion.’ In November 1934, the first Toba converted. Four weeks later, sixteen men followed him […] By 1935  there were about 250 Toba converts. Jean and John Comaroff have rightly argued that conversion to Christianity on colonial frontiers is part of a broader historical transformation that goes beyond the forging of a religious identity. Among the Toba, this conversion was profoundly intertwined with experiences of state terror, conflicts with settlers, and labour migrations.


Evangelisation also reshaped Toba bodies. People abandoned emblems of the ancient ones’ identity, such as earlobe piercing, face tattooing, and long hair among men and short hair among women. In conjunction with their experience in the sugar cane fields, in the 1940s and 1950s people acquired pieces of clothing rarely worn until then: pants among men and dresses among women.’

Source: Landscapes of devils: tensions of place and memory in the Argentinean Chaco, By Gastón Gordillo, Duke University Press, 2004


Fragment Thirteen: ‘We are driven to our suicide’

The local Chaco authorities have, since 1966, repeatedly promised to recognise Indian Territory in their province – but have failed to fulfil one single promise. On the contrary, they have worked with the landowners to continue to deny the Tobas their land, handing it to settlers, and authorising its deforestation, without the consent of the community, aggravating already severe economic and social deprivation.

Prospectors, ranchers and logging companies seek to exploit the land’s natural resources; landowners claim title to it. As a result of state inaction, indigenous peoples are deprived of the essential resources necessary for the realisation of their economic, social and cultural rights.

In the 1880’s the Argentine government began a campaign to occupy new territories, defeating the last organised attempts by the Tobas to defend their lands. The Argentine Chaco was divided up in large portions and exploited, especially for the valuable quebracho trees, used for its tanning and its extremely durable timber. This devastated the ecosystem in a relatively short time. The private owners of the Chaco then turned to cotton production, employing the Tobas as a cheap seasonal workforce; the conditions did not change substantially for decades.

Beginning in 1982, the region suffered unprecedented floods, which caused the crops to be ruined: and in the1990’s, mechanical harvesters imported from Brazil (at very low prices due to Argentina’s low fixed exchange rate) left many Tobas without jobs. The provincial government of Chaco resorted to pay a one-way ticket to the Tobas willing to migrate south, into Santa Fe.

The majority of the Tobas migrants settled in Rosario, which is a large city in the south of Santa Fe and had seen a previous wave of Tobas in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Communication and family ties were kept in time, so the newcomers found a place; job opportunities and government assistance, even if scarce and of poor quality, were considerably more available in an urban setting than in Chaco. An estimated 10,000 Tobas came to Rosario in the 1990s, and settled mostly in slums.

In ‘Las Lomas’ neighbourhood in the Santa Fe City, live 133 families originally from Chaco. They left their lands for social and economic reasons. Many experience discrimination, exploitation, and other violations of their human rights, including their economic, social and cultural rights. Such people are additionally vulnerable to abuse. The local government is only too willing to turn a blind eye to large numbers of their necessities. The Tobas live and work in appalling conditions, without access even to essential services such as health care.

The Tobas have a lot of necessities they must realise for the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights like any other citizens, notably in the areas of education, housing, employment, and health. ‘We have no land to plant on. Precisely because of this, there is misery and hunger in our land… We are driven to our suicide because we don’t mean anything’. Carlos, Indigenous leader.

Source: Toba General Information, by Dr. Alicia Luna, Pay It Forward Project Latin American Coordinator. Pay It Forward Project 2006


Fragment Fourteen: Villas Miseria

An 11-family sample is presented. All adults therein are Toba Indians, born in Colonia Chaco, Province of Chaco, Argentina. They are now living in poorer districts of the Northern sector of the Greater Buenos Aires. The first migrant group arrived in Buenos Aires in 1969 and settled down in shantytowns (villas miseria). Their substituting the district (barrio) for the shantytown points out their longing for a change in their situation. Their current situation, however, could be summed up as an underpaid sub occupation, with precarious dwelling, scarce food and clothes, deficient medical care, and a schooling system divorced from their own daily life. Subsistence strategies this Toba group has adopted are quite similar to the strategies other marginal or subaltern groups resort to.’

Source: Adaptative strategies of Toba Indian migrants in the Greater Buenos Aires area, by M. Mendoza, Acta Psiquiatr Psicol Am Lat. Jul-Dec 1989, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda MD, 20894 US


Fragment Fifteen: Cultural Genocide

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) filed an amicus brief (or ‘friend of the court’ brief) at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the Wichi and four other indigenous communities in northern Argentina. The brief asks the Commission to grant precautionary measures to halt further development until the government of Argentina prepares an environmental impact assessment and consults with the indigenous peoples threatened by the development. The Wichi and other indigenous communities also have asked the Commission to enforce Argentina’s promise to honour their land claims. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for October 12th in Washington, DC.

The amicus brief urges the Commission to recognise the symbiotic relationship between indigenous peoples and their land, an important stepping- stone in efforts to strengthen the link between human rights and the environment. The brief asks the Commission to take precautionary measures forcing Argentine authorities to halt a road and bridge project, and several other public works that threaten the environment, culture, and lifestyle of the Wichi, Chorote, Chulupi, Toba, and Tapiete indigenous communities of northern Argentina. The road is designed to connect Brazil with Pacific ports in Chile to facilitate the globalisation of trade.’

Source: Indigenous Argentine Communities Ask Inter-American Human Rights Commission To Protect Them From Cultural Genocide. The Center for International Environmental Law, October 3, 2000 http//:www.ciel.org/Announce/wichipressrelease.html


Fragment Sixteen: ‘The loss’

Over 600 Toba people now lived on a Franciscan mission forty kilometers west of Asuncion. As most of their land was swampy and ranchers forbid them from trespassing to hunt, the Toba sold crafts or worked for paraguayos for a living. In February 1977, Toba leaders finally went to opposition newspapers and declared that their situation was critical and desperate. In the earliest deliberate native attempt to influence the regime through the media, the Toba showed that with ancestral lands they could oppose regime plans to force them into the wider labour force.

Soon after the Toba began to press for land, an Enenlhit group that Mennonite immigrants had evicted late in 1971 also increased demands for their ancestral territory. This group had originally hunted and raised subsistence crops at Casanillo, in the northern Chaco. Over the next years the Enenlhit made public their displeasure by intoxicating themselves and disruptively wandering the streets of the largest Mennonite town. Women from this group went so far as to abort unborn infants to show their displeasure. By aborting foetuses, the Enenlhit used an extreme form of resistance to protest the loss of tribal autonomy.’

Source: Contemporary indigenous movements in Latin America, by Erick Detlef Langer, Elena Muñoz. Rowman & Littlefield 2003


Fragment Seventeen: On Degradation (I)

The Argentine Toba are experiencing a dramatic transition from their original lifestyle to the one offered by the non-indigenous communities. The severe degradation of their original environment together with overpopulation and the overwhelming socioeconomic pressures have considerably diminished the possibility of retaining the traditional subsistence model. The Toba have been described as ‘an egalitarian society with an immediate return economy (Mendoza, in press) […]

Families settled in peri-urban or urban communities only hunt, fish, and gather opportunistically, when they have access to transportation to the forest or the river. They subsist on the wages of the few men with public employment on the unstable salaries of temporary jobs, and on governmental subsidies. Older women, usually accompanied by young children, may gather food and other goods from the non-indigenous population by asking door to door or simply sitting on the doorsteps of markets and food stores. Most women do not work for a salary and their activities revolve around childcare and household chores. Some women weave baskets or string bags, which they sell as handicrafts in the non-indigenous towns. The percentage of Toba families, both rural and urban, with unmet basic needs varies between 75% and 100%, depending on the province.

Integration of the Toba into the Argentine social and political life has been extremely difficult. Education policy, as a basic premise of social equity, has not achieved much success. Schools are not integrated, not even in urban settings. Furthermore, in the province of Formosa, some schools follow the ‘aboriginal modality.’ In these schools, non-indigenous teachers teach a shorter version of the ‘regular’ curriculum, while bilingual indigenous teachers offer native language writing and reading courses. Although this schooling modality was intended to bridge the language gap in the classroom, it is being seriously criticised by Toba delegates, who argue that their children’s opportunity to an equal education is being radically curtailed (Alegre & Francia, 2001). Up to this date, no Toba person in the country has achieved a professional (or equivalent) degree.

The political participation of all Chacoan Indian groups has been reduced to negotiation of their vote. Voting is compulsory in Argentina. Around national and local election times, political parties gain votes by offering food and clothes. However, there is an increasing tendency in urban settlements to form civil associations that can legally request community development funds from national and international organizations. For example, a civil association formed in a Toba village in the province of Formosa is devoting its efforts to enforce the implementation of the Ley Integral del Aborigen (Aboriginal Integral Law), sanctioned in 1984 but never properly enforced (Alegre & Francia, 2001).

Source: Argentine Toba, by Claudia R.Valeggia and Florencia Tola, Ember, Volume 2, 4 July 2003


Fragment Eighteen: Referendum

In the impoverished northwest province of Salta, indigenous residents are continuing their uphill battle for their land and environment. But members of the Wichi, Chorote, Chulupi, Toba and Tapiete indigenous groups are facing tough opposition, as the lands are being rapidly cleared for soy farming by international companies.

In Rivadavia, a department northeast of Salta, some 40 indigenous communities have united to reject a plebiscite scheduled for Oct. 23 by the provincial government to determine the fate of two publicly owned lots.

The 647,000-hectare (1,600,000 acre) plots of mountainous and poor farming land are home to some 6,000 indigenous residents. According to a provincial government ruling, the referendum will be included on the upcoming congressional election ballot. All Rivadavia residents will be given the opportunity to vote on the fate of the native lands, including those who do not even live in the disputed area.

Faced with the Salta government’s decision, members of indigenous communities argued in August to prevent the referendum before Argentina’s Supreme Court. Indigenous citizens based their claim on the constitution, which establishes that ‘the ownership of the lands is the right of the indigenous people and, the state, specifically, must hand them over’.

Additionally, they filed their claim before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organisation of American States that opened up an international dialogue on the topic, calling for the federal government to step in after the Salta government failed to budge on the issue.

Source: Argentina – Indigenous land fight, by Pablo Waisberg. 13 Oct 2005.


Fragment Nineteen: On Degradation (II)

In the central-western Chaco region, which is home to the highest proportion of indigenous peoples (9 different ethnic groups, the majority of whom are hunter/gatherers), the indiscriminate felling of native forest by logging companies and non-indigenous expropriators, along with extensive cattle rearing over open countryside, has caused desertification, soil impoverishment and a loss of biodiversity. Local governments sell state lands to businessmen, who level vast areas to establish farms. This affects the reproductive cycles of the flora and fauna that form the food of indigenous families. The Pilcomayo River, a source of fish for riverine communities, now presents high levels of contamination with mercury and other heavy metals due to spillages in the mining areas of neighbouring countries. State development plans, implemented on indigenous territories with no consultation, alter their areas of traditional use, increasing malnutrition and poverty.

Source: Indigenous Peoples in Argentina, by the International Work Group For Indigenous Affairs.


Fragment Twenty: ‘A slow extermination’

In a country in the midst of an economic boom, human-rights groups are blaming the government for neglecting Argentina’s original inhabitants. Tomasa Juarez suffers from tuberculosis and can barely walk – the lack of food and tuberculosis are slowly killing her.

She is part of a community that is quickly vanishing.

Tomasa lives in El Chaco, Argentina’s poorest province, in an area known as ‘the impenetrable’ because of its remoteness. Her husband, Domingo Sosa, told Al Jazeera: ‘Sometimes we have food and sometimes we don’t. We survive with what we can. We have no one to turn to.’

Tomasa is a member of the Toba indigenous group and is not the only member of her community who is suffering. In the last 12 months, many members of the Toba tribe have died of malnourishment and immunity deficiency, which results in deadly diseases like tuberculosis.

Tina, the village’s witchdoctor, says she is worried because she cannot help her ailing community. She said: ‘They are sick. There is not enough food and I try to help them but my medicines are not good enough. They eat flour and fat, and only when they can.’ Hunger afflicts these Argentines, in a country previously known as the world’s granary.

The country’s indigenous communities used to depend on the forest to feed themselves. But massive deforestation and the sale of public land to private companies have forced them into areas where they can barely survive. At the community centre in Villa Bermejo, dozens of Indians gathered to seek help for those in need. They are powerless but hope the government to take action. There are around 600,000 native Indians in Argentina and most of them live in very poor conditions.

One native Indian, Juan Sasa, showed us his living conditions had left his body emaciated. The Toba only hope the government will take action He said: ‘They give us medicines for the tuberculosis but they are no good without something in your stomach.’

Local authorities say they are doing everything they can to help indigenous communities.

But Rolando Nunez, of the Nelson Mandela Human Rights Centre, believes something else. He blames corruption and inefficiency for the current situation. He said: ‘The Indian communities are a disposable population. Leaving them to die like this is a slow extermination. This cannot be fixed with some bags of food. There needs to be a national plan to feed them, educate them, but the truth is, nobody cares.’ Six years after Argentina’s worst economic crises, the country’s economy is booming. But people like Tomasa do not get to see the benefits. They just have to hope that things will change soon.’

Source: Argentina’s neglected Indian tribe: Human-rights groups blame government corruption for the Toba’s plight.
Al Jazeera: Updated on 13 August 2007


Fragment Twenty One: Protection

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 1 (IPS) – The ‘El Impenetrable’ forest, which covers nearly four million hectares in northern Argentina, could finally be protected thanks to a new forestry law, after decades of deforestation which have plunged impoverished indigenous people in the area into a grave humanitarian crisis.

After a campaign that managed to collect 1.5 million signatures, the forestry law finished winding its way slowly through Congress and was passed late last year. The law declared a one-year ban on logging in native forests and requires the national and provincial authorities to draw up land-use plans clearly defining protected areas and sustainable forestry zones.

Each new logging permit issued after the ban is lifted will depend on approval of an environmental impact study and will only be issued after public hearings are held. The dense El Impenetrable forest, which covered 8.2 million hectares in the northern provinces of Chaco, Santiago del Estero and Salta 95 years ago, has shrunk over the years as livestock breeders and soy farmers have moved in. The area, the poorest part of Argentina’s poorest province, is now rife with corruption, drug trafficking and the smuggling of contraband cigarettes.

The deforestation picked up speed over the last decade. The Environment Ministry estimates that Argentina lost 1.1 million hectares of native forest between 1998 and 2006. El Impenetrable represented more than 60 percent of that total, according to environmental organisations.

A forest survey carried out in 1982 found that El Impenetrable had shrunk to 5.4 million hectares, and a 2005 study reported that it covered 4.8 million hectares. But according to the Nelson Mandela human rights centre, based in Resistencia, the capital of the province of Chaco, a more accurate estimate is 3.5 million hectares.

The Nelson Mandela centre maintains that the provincial government sold off more than 3.3 million hectares of public land, mainly in El Impenetrable, from 1995 to 2007. The head of the centre, Rolando Nuñez, described to IPS a corrupt scheme ‘through which land sales were encouraged, to obtain mortgages, which devastated state-run banks, because the value of the land two years after it was bought was far lower than the amounts loaned.’

The inhospitable El Impenetrable is a dry forest made up of carob, quebracho, and chañar (or palo verde) trees, which receives little rainfall and is crossed only by a branch of the Bermejo River, the Bermejito. Temperatures can climb as high as 45 degrees Celsius in the long summer.

That is why the sandy soil left after land in the forest is cleared is only good for producing one or two harvests of soy, the star crop that has displaced other crops, like cotton, which used to provide local indigenous people with seasonal employment. ‘But the soil is so poor that only two harvests are possible,’ the head of Greenpeace Argentina’s forest campaign, Hernán Giardini, told IPS.

Satellite images show areas that have been turned into desert, as well as slashes in the forest where the trees have been felled for makeshift airstrips, some of which are still littered by the remains of abandoned broken-down aircraft. The landing strips are used for smuggling drugs and contraband cigarettes, say local residents.

The destruction of the forest has not only caused harm to the environment, but to local inhabitants as well, according to both human rights groups and the Chaco provincial government of Jorge Capitanich, who took office in December and has declared a health, food, educational and environmental emergency. […] Shocking photographs of indigenous people suffering from acute malnutrition shook the country last year, when 22 people were reported to have died of malnutrition.

When asked about the likely impact of measures taken under the humanitarian and environmental emergency declared in the province, Núñez said they will be useless ‘if they are applied as merely a short-term solution, without monitoring and oversight.’

He said the provincial government must adopt long-term, comprehensive humanitarian measures, and engage in dialogue with local indigenous communities. The activist also criticised the fact that food and medical supplies and aid are being ‘partly distributed by the army – an error because indigenous communities tend to be wary of uniforms.’ […] The Capitanich administration is also undertaking land titling efforts, so that local families whose descendants have lived in the forest for generations will finally hold formal title to their property.

Greenpeace activist Giardini, meanwhile, said the new forestry law ‘will be effective, because most of the logging in Chaco is legal, and the permits have now been cancelled. And the fact that the law earmarks one billion pesos (315 million dollars) to foment sustainable forestry activities is another important aspect.’

Source: Environment-Argentina: Impenetrable Neglect, by Sebastián Lacunza. Inter Press Service News Agency, 6 March 2010


Fragment Twenty Two: On Toba Cosmology

Bishop David was born in Argentina where his father Canon Alfred had headed off to do missionary work in 1926 – leaving behind the family fishing tradition and joining the Church Army having been inspired by its work by books in the East Runton Reading Room.

Bishop David knew of the drama, but only rediscovered the details when searching through some of his father’s papers during some family history research.

The bishop’s career in Argentina stretched from 1963 to 2003. He returned to his birthplace after spells as a student, post office worker and farm labourer in Norfolk. In South America he worked among the hunter-gatherer tribes in an inhospitable landscape teaming with mosquitoes, piranhas and alligators, to encourage Christian values among people who believed forests and winds had a living soul.’

Source: David Leake



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