Taking Back Stolen Land

In Patagonia, the Mapuche are recovering state and private land that once belonged to them, and protecting it from miners and drillers.

A scarecrow stands guard in front of the main building at Lof Kurache. It consists of two poles crossed and lashed together, with clothing filling out a reasonably convincing torso and a milk jug for a head, wrapped in bandit-like face covering.

photo of mapuche protest
Mapuche communities have been reclaiming land in Patagonia, much of which was taken from them during a murderous campaign at the end of the nineteenth century by the Argentine military. Photo by courtesy of Pikist

A more accurate term would be scare-cop. “If soldiers do show up, we don’t want them to think they’ve caught us off-guard and sneak up on us,” says a community member inside. (Except for the designated spokesperson, everyone I spoke to for this story asked to remain anonymous.)

Lof Kurache is one of the latest in a long series of territorial recoveries carried out by the Mapuche across the Patagonia region of Argentina. Throughout the last three decades, Mapuche communities have been retaking land from both the state and absentee landlords. In many cases, these land holdings can be traced to a murderous campaign at the end of the nineteenth century by the Argentine military to wipe out the Mapuche.

But the Mapuche are still here, and many of them are determined to regain land that once belonged to them.

The families that make up Lof Kurache reclaimed this piece of land on December 25, 2019, staking their ancestral claim to a tiny corner of the 2.2 million acres held by the Benetton Group, the Italian business conglomerate of “United Colors” fame and the largest private landholder in Argentina. They are aware that the arrival of military police attempting to remove them at gunpoint is always a possibility.

Lof Kurache follows two other high-profile territorial recoveries that happened on Benetton’s holdings in 2007 and 2015. In both cases, the Mapuche have managed to retain control. These recoveries concern less than 0.01 percent of the land held by the company, but they pose an existential threat to the very concept of private property. The crackdown has been fierce, ranging from drawn-out lawsuits and smear campaigns, to raids involving hundreds of soldiers, helicopters, horses, and live ammunition. Soldiers tore down buildings and burned possessions. In 2017 two people were killed.

These recovery efforts also coincide with the massive popular struggle against extractive industry, including open-pit gold and silver mining and oil and gas drilling. Mining concessions of subsoil rights lie under Lof Kurache and nearby areas. Just 150 kilometers east, other Mapuche communities are resisting the Navidad project, which needs only final legislative approval for a massive open-pit silver and lead mine.

photo of mapuche land
Mapuche land in Argentinian Patagonia. Mapuche land recovery efforts coincide with popular struggles to defend land and water from extractive industry. Photo by Mario Mantel.

As in other parts of the world, Indigenous activists and environmental groups have joined forces to defend land and water. However, when the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota and South Dakota or the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia have resisted pipelines across their land, the general public sees these protests as defensive actions; most agree it is their land to defend. In Patagonia, however, Indigenous peoples are reclaiming territory to defend it, and as the pace of recoveries has picked up in recent years it has also highlighted ideological schisms.

“In Esquel the anti-mining movement is stronger than anywhere, and commands support of wide swaths of the population,” says Nora Corvalán, a longtime anti-mining activist, as she drives the 50 miles home to Lago Puelo after delivering supplies to another recovery near Lof Kurache. “But they can’t all agree on supporting Mapuche recovery of territory. Only a few of them come out here when help is needed.” According to Corvalán, 82 percent of voters in the area opposed mining in a 2003 referendum. These voters agree that they don’t want cyanide from gold mines in their groundwater. But most of them still consider it their groundwater on their land. Upsetting the established order around private property is evidently outside their comfort zone.

Thus the alliance teeters across an imbalance of mutual support. Before reaching the scare-cop at Lof Kurache, the first thing a visitor sees is a sign on the gate saying NO A LA MINA. Every recovered territory these days will have giant anti-mining and anti-drilling signs because there is a blanket understanding that the land is being recovered precisely to defend it against these violations. The converse, however, is not true — a march against proposed mines draws tenfold more people than rallies supporting Mapuche communities that face eviction or prosecution. Though the latter draw noticeable non-Indigenous support, it is far more limited; by this point most people there all know each other.

Mutual support grows even more crucial as the climate crisis looms large. Pillán Mahuiza, a Mapuche community that recovered its land 20 years ago, hosted a four-day international climate gathering in February, notably marking the first Mapuche-organized event to focus on both the climate crisis and Indigenous rights. As an issue of concern, the climate crisis does not have the traction here that it does in the Global North, even among those who pay attention to the environment.

Organized by the Indigenous Women’s Movement, the gathering saw 150 people camp out and discuss climate change and Indigenous rights. Participants came from around Argentina, as well as Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Canada, the United States, Italy, Spain, and France. A discrepancy between Indigenous perspectives and climate activists lay thickly over the whole event. For instance, two activists from Buenos Aires gave enthusiastic explanations of the need for large-scale mobilization to force reductions in carbon emissions, but some of those listening were too poor to have much of a carbon footprint.

When the closing plenary session began discussing proposals for action, talk immediately turned to creating communications networks to coordinate actions across continents, such as online calendars to allow for support of important events. After nearly two hours of discussing such mechanisms, a young woman from the Wichí people in northern Argentina rose to speak.

“You all keep talking about networks, about being able to instantly leap into action when someone else needs your support, but nobody asked us if we have cellphone reception where we live,” she said. “We don’t have telephones, or running water, and some folks don’t even have electricity, so I don’t know what kind of a network you’re talking about. The only way we’re going to be involved is if someone comes out to our territory in person. And if you come we won’t be able to offer you more than some stale bread and a cup of tea, since most days that’s all we have to eat.” Everyone seemed to agree this was rather telling, and a major sticking point. But no one proposed any methods of overcoming it.

Moira Millán, a member of the host community and organizer with the Indigenous Women’s Movement, also weighed in. “This movement isn’t what you’re used to,” she explained to the attendees. “This isn’t the same as dealing with electoral politics or an NGO organizing a campaign. This is a people, and a people with an unbroken presence on this very landscape. You must understand this.”

Meanwhile, the Mapuche and other Indigenous peoples who are recovering land have made the connection between their struggle to right historic injustices and the fight against climate change and rapacious extraction. It’s a hung jury as to whether the urban middle class concerned about (and primarily responsible for) rising emissions understands that. But whether they do or not, while campaigns are being run on the Internet, the Mapuche are taking back territory across the Patagonian steppe. If non-Indigenous support remains scant, they’ll just keep building scare-cops.

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