| The Peaceful People
A report by Richard Solly, amended in 2006, on his visit to the
Zlaqatahyi communities in 2001
(For the full report in its unabridged form, please contact Clare
through the website contact page.)
When I visited the communities of Zlaqtahyi
in 2001, my main aims were to maintain the strong contact between
Chacolinks and the Wichí communities of the Itiyuro Basin,
to take material donations to them and to collect Wichí craft
work and bring it back to Britain for sale.
I learned about the state of the Zlaqatahyi land
rights process, and liaised with other groups (both indigenous and
non-indigenous) with relevant experience in this field.
I made contact with several Wichí
communities connected with Zlaqatahyi other than Hoktek T'oi and
found out about their needs, as well as meeting with various other
organisations. This gathering of information allowed me to make
recommendations about Chacolinks’ campaigning in support of
Wichí communities in Salta Province continue
to suffer as a result of the presence of non-indigenous settlers,
who began arriving in the area about fifty years ago. The settlers
are often referred to as criollos. They attempt to make a living
by keeping cattle, which range freely in the dry forest of the Chaco,
consuming vegetation upon which the Wichí people and the
animals which they have traditionally hunted also rely for food.
Most of these settlers are poor and of mixed European and indigenous
ancestry, though the indigenous component of their ancestry is usually
neither local nor culturally significant, and it certainly does
not lead to a sense of solidarity with the Wichí.
The criollo economy is unsustainable, as the
dry forest of the Chaco is unsuitable for large numbers of cattle.
It is common to find the decaying carcases of cattle which have
died of dehydration, starvation or disease. Criollo families engage
in violent feuds between themselves and have also behaved violently
towards the Wichí and even the Argentine police, ejecting
police posts and refusing to accept outside interference in their
After the settlers came the loggers. Much of
the logging in the dry Chaco forest is illegal. It could easily
be stopped if the police thought it was important, but they do not.
Many of the logging workers are as poor and desperate as the settlers;
many are Wichí themselves, but often Wichí who have
been transplanted from one district to another and lost a sense
of close kinship with an area of land. Desperate for food, they
take waged labour cutting down the valuable algorrobo trees and
move them out of the forest by night. These are sold mostly within
Argentina. They are used to make furniture.
Most recently, the agricultural companies have
come. They are Argentine-based companies but have no evident concern
either for the condition of the Argentine environment or for the
indigenous people of Argentina. They have deforested large quantities
of land in order to grow beans and cotton. They buy pieces of land
in Wichí ancestral territory and remove the forest cover
completely with bulldozers. By law, they are required to leave lines
of trees every 400 metres, as windbreaks. This requirement is consistently
ignored, and the violators can usually rely on the complicity of
the courts should the matter be taken to law. The result is a great
increase in wind, heat intensity and soil erosion. It is unclear
how long such practices can continue before the soil is completely
The agricultural companies employ both criollo
and Wichí wage-labourers, who are required to work long hours
in the fierce heat which builds up in the shadeless fields. The
cotton and beans produced are for export as well as for consumption
As well as deforestation by these Argentine farming
companies, Mennonites from the Paraguayan Chaco want to buy 100,000
hectares to the north and east of Hoktek T'oi (see below). The Salta
provincial government is warmly supportive of this project because
it considers it to be an important ‘development’ initiative.
Neither cattle ranching nor the rapacious current
model of selective logging followed by indiscriminate deforestation
and large-scale agriculture can have much future in the dry Chaco.
Agriculture is clearly incompatible with cattle ranching and logging,
both of which rely on continuing forest cover, and is likely to
exhaust the soil quickly, since the agricultural model being used
was developed for temperate zones with deep, rich soils. The fact
that the Salta provincial government supports all these activities
and eagerly welcomes agricultural ‘development’ suggests
either that it has absolutely no long-term vision whatsoever (a
possibility) or that its underlying goal is the completion of the
colonial process: to clear the land of identifiably indigenous people
and reduce the decultured survivors to poorly paid wage labourers.
These can then can help line the pockets first of wealthy farmers
of European descent, and then of enormous corporations of whatever
provenance, national or foreign. Poor criollo settlers can play
a useful role in ‘softening up’ the indigenous inhabitants,
but are themselves destined to pass away unmourned.
The transformation of a forest of enormous variety,
productivity and beauty, peopled continuously since time immemorial
by peoples with a moral culture which is, in my view, superior to
that of the colonisers, into a howling wasteland, by means of mono-crop
agriculture does not ultimately matter to the colonisers, as long
as it achieves the noble colonial goal of liquidating the local
‘savages’ and their ‘outdated’ culture.
It would simply be the final flowering of the work of racist dispossession
which was initiated in 1492.
Under these circumstances, it is crucial for
the Wichí to gain recognition of their right to control their
land. The options for gaining control of their land under current
Argentine law are:
Amparo – this is like an injunction,
and simply stops damaging activities like deforestation.
Usucapion – juicio veinteanal – claiming land that you
have lived on, and used, for twenty years or more. This law was
designed to assist the colonial process by enabling settlers to
gain title to land they have occupied, even if it continues to be
part of the ancestral territory of existing indigenous communities.
Nonetheless, it can also be used by indigenous communities to assert
their own rights over their land.
Entrega de tierras – if land is fiscal (government-controlled)
land, the government can transfer title to a community as long as
the community has personería jurídica (legal personhood).
Donacion – a private landholder can sign over land to a community.
Ley de Expropiacion – a law passed by the government to buy
out a private landholder who is unwilling to donate.
Compra de tierras – the community buys out the landowner itself
via a public notary.
2. Hoktek T’oi (Lapacho Mocho)
The history of Hoktek T'oi’s land rights
struggle can be found in the Historia de Hoktek T'oi updated by
members of the community at Hoktek T’oi at the beginning of
October 2001, a copy of which can be obtained from Chacolinks.
The community of Hoktek T'oi chose to pursue
its land rights by means of a Ley de Expropiacion.
Just before our visit, Hoktek T'oi’s elected Encargado, Roque
Miranda, had travelled to Buenos Aires with Amado (another community
member) and John Palmer, to lobby members of the national Senate
committee responsible for examining the proposed law. Letters were
sent in support of the law from members of Chacolinks in November
2001, when the law was due to be considered by the full Senate.
It was passed. This should have meant that 3,000 hectares of Wichí
land were returned to the community at Hoktek T'oi (representing
4% of their ancestral land) to add to the 44 hectares to which they
already have title. Despite repeated attempts to bring the process
to completion, the compensation which must be paid to the original
purchasers of the land (Desdelsur) has not been paid. At the present
time (May 2006) the land is still unusable by the Wichí and
the forest is being robbed of timber by illegal loggers. Chacolinks’
pressure on national and provincial governments, as well as support
for legal action in the courts is continuing.
Publicity in Argentine newspapers is extremely
important. The situation around Hoktek T'oi improved after articles
sympathetic to the Wichí were published in the provincial
newspaper in August 2001: the illegal deforestation around the community
was halted, the work camp disbanded, the bulldozer hidden in the
woods. I photographed the most recent deforestation close to Hoktek
T'oi; work had not resumed after the August cessation.
When Hoktek T'oi decided to pursue its land rights, it was clear
that it would be necessary to obtain personería jurídica.
This required the establishment of a non-traditional structure of
authority with which the Argentine authorities would be willing
to deal. As a result, Juan Vega was elected President of the community.
Juan’s strategy proved unpopular in Hoktek T'oi, and he moved
away. He was replaced by the then Secretary, Roque (Martin) Miranda.
At this time, the community decided that the term ‘President’
was in any case profoundly un-Wichí, and they changed the
title to Encargado, which simply implies that the office holder
is charged with particular responsibilities.
Roque told me that the people in Hoktek T'oi
had known nothing about the laws concerning land and Indigenous
Peoples, and had had to learn. The community took the view that
nothing was to be expected from the government, and decided to take
the judicial route. John Palmer had helped them with this. Roque
said that when the 3,000 hectares subject to the Ley de Expropiacion
was won, other communities would see the value of the process. However
the painfully slow process here cannot engender a respect for this
method of regaining land rights.
Roque was adamant that what the community at
Hoktek T'oi wants from the government is not work but land. That
is fundamental. In pursuing the land claim, the knowledge that people
outside the community are supporting it is really important –
it sustains people’s determination to keep going.
Since the deforestation of the surrounding land,
the Wichí of Hoktek T'oi (currently around sixty people living
in fifteen separate houses) have suffered badly from lack of food
and from various health problems. Projects supported financially
from outside agencies, such as IWGIA, the Inter-American Development
Bank (IDB) and Chacolinks, have been crucial in helping the community
survive, by providing money for food for the workers as well as
money for materials. Health problems include frequent headaches,
seemingly brought on by stress – which, I suspect, includes
the stress caused by attempting to maintain traditional Wichí
‘goodwill’ in the face of continuous, and sometimes
violent, provocation from outside – and respiratory problems
brought on by poor diet. The spraying of pesticides by the agricultural
companies has also caused and exacerbated respiratory problems,
especially among the children.
The Hoktek T'oi Community Centre:
Various work projects have demonstrated the community’s
evident capacity for learning new things. The community centre funded
by the IDB was designed by a sympathetic outsider (the brother of
lawyer America Alemán) but built by the men of Hoktek T'oi,
who learnt brick-making, bricklaying, plastering, making and working
with cement, roofing, plumbing and electrics in order to construct
the attractive and impressive building. For the fencing project,
they learnt how to make concrete fence-posts, how to string the
wire and how to cement the bottom of the fence securely to the ground
so as to prevent livestock wriggling under it. For the Zlaqatahyi
office, situated in Hoktek T'oi, they learnt how to design a building
and, having designed the office to their own specifications, built
it themselves, learning along the way how to improve the design,
for instance by including a cavity in the wall to provide insulation
against extremes of heat and cold. For both buildings, they have
learnt how to install, run and maintain solar electricity generating
equipment. They are eager now, if they can get the money to do so,
to design and build their own brick and plaster houses to replace
the current mud and timber constructions. The Zlaqatahyi office
building which they had designed themselves is proof of the excellent
quality of housing that they could enjoy if they can persuade someone
to fund the provision of building materials and money for food while
they work on the project.
All the time we were in Hoktek T'oi, the place
was full of activity: the men working on the Zlaqatahyi office and
the fence around the community, the women on domestic tasks and
bag-making. The craftwork which they had produced recently was handed
over to be taken to the UK, to be sold for a profit which could
then be sent back to the community fund. People were clearly eager
to take advantage of this arrangement.
The economic assistance provided by selling craftwork
or paying for useful construction projects will continue to be necessary
at least until the deforested land around the community has recovered
sufficiently to enable the community to rely on the game and food
plants which it may yield.
Advice on recycling plastic,
tin cans and bottles would be helpful as a way of cleaning up the
community and perhaps earning some cash income. It was suggested
that perhaps European recycling experts could be sent to visit Hoktek
T'oi, paid for by the support organisations in Britain and Denmark.
3. Pacará (Qanohitaj)
The Wichí community of Pacará is
about eighteen kilometres east of Hoktek T'oi, along dirt roads
that are easily rendered impassable by rain. The Wichí name
for the community is Qanohitaj, but the Spanish name seemed to be
used more frequently. A pacará is a kind of tree. A branch
from a pacará tree can be planted even in infertile soil
and grow roots and new shoots.
Pacará has obtained personería
jurídica and now has a President, José Galarza, who
visited Hoktek T'oi in late September to ask for assistance in mapping
sites of significance to the community in order to pursue its land
claim. Pacará had asked the government to pay off the unpaid
land duties left by the latest legally recognised owner of their
ancestral land (who is off the scene, maybe dead) so that the land
would become fiscal land unencumbered by debt and could be handed
back to the Wichí community through entrega de tierras. But
the government said it could not pay off the unpaid taxes. Pacará
therefore needed to adopt a different and as yet undecided strategy,
but whatever course of action it were to pursue, it would need an
accurate map of sites of significance.
The community is suffering because of massive
deforestation by the Desdelsur agricultural company. Pacará
was one of the communities which had declared its interest in the
Zlaqatahyi land rights project, based in Hoktek T'oi, so José
cycled over to Hoktek T'oi to ask for help: the Zlaqatahyi project
owns computer satellite mapping equipment. We therefore travelled
to Pacará and spent four days mapping the area around the
Elders at Pacará explained that Pentecostal
missionaries had established a mission in the area in the mid 20th
century. The Wichí Pentecostal missionary alienated many
of the other Wichí and was eventually physically attacked,
and later died of his injuries. This was probably in the early 1950s.
As a consequence, the government talked of fumigating the area to
kill off the Wichí. The Anglicans stepped in to prevent this:
they said they would look after the Wichí. This is how the
Anglican Mission was established and the Wichí around Pacará
became Anglican. They feel that the religious question has been
settled. Now the land question needs to be settled.
The Pentecostal and first Anglican missions were,
like the current village of Pacará, on the Itiyuro River.
This river dries up completely in the dry season but used to flood
badly in the wet season. (The construction of a dam upstream near
Aguaray has reduced the river’s flow so much that even in
the wet season it does not necessarily flow strongly any more.)
The river flooded very badly in the sixties, destroying the old
Anglican Mission and prompting the move to the present site of Pacará.
During this flood, we were told, local criollo settlers got the
Wichí to wade neck deep through flood water to rescue the
The current village is clustered around a church,
school and clinic building. The clinic was built by a group of soldiers
from United States over a period of a few weeks during a cholera
epidemic at the beginning of the 1990s. It now has no permanent
staff or regular supplies. One of the Wichí community leaders,
Santos Basualdo, is a trained health worker (as well as a Deacon
in the Anglican Church) and he maintains the building. Dr Paterson
of the Asociana Health Team was visiting from Tartagal every few
The significant sites mapped included burial
and garden sites. Usually, Wichí people do not talk about
or name the dead and they bury them in such a way that there is
little trace of them, even destroying photographs of the dead, so
that nothing remains. In fact, during a meeting in the village,
one elderly woman rebuked her friends for talking about the dead,
saying it was making her uneasy. Another older woman laughed, saying
that she had no fear of doing so because she would soon be joining
them herself. As we visited different burial sites, people did talk
about the dead buried there, about their characteristics and family
relationships and their relationship with the place. The process
of talking about the dead is called ‘raising the names’.
Wichí names (like ‘Doesn’t Wash’) are unique
to the individual, so what was being remembered and spoken about
was a vivid individuality and a vivid community of relationships
with people and place. Along Route 86, north of Pacará and
close to the community of Tonono and the former site of Hoktek T’oi
are the burial sites of people connected with all three communities.
Community members searched for the cemetery of
the first Anglican Mission. This was known to be under an old algorrobo
tree. They looked all round for it without success. The tree must
have been cut down for timber, as have many other algorrobo trees.
So the destruction of algorrobos does not just cost Wichí
people their fruit but also landmarks, thus leading to cultural
dislocation through the loss of historical markers, fixed links
with the land.
One of the older Wichí men mentioned various
fruits that they used to eat. When they abandoned shamanism for
‘The Word of God’, they also abandoned many other things,
he said. Everything old came to be associated with what was evil.
Now the government, he said, is telling them they should go back
to their old medicines because of the lack of funds for modern health
care. So, he said, maybe they will go back to all the old ways.
Our generation can’t abandon The Word, he said, but maybe
our children can. Then they could go back to the old foods and the
One of the other older men said that his father
had been a shaman at a former settlement which we visited called
Great Undergrowth. He could heal people by touching them and drawing
out diseases. He told his young son (i.e. the old man telling us
the story) that being a shaman was very hard work, knowing how to
read people’s thoughts and cure diseases, so he should not
be a shaman. That’s why he abandoned that path and went over
to The Word.
The community at Pacará has the services
of a government-paid teacher, a non-indigenous woman called Isabel
Flores. She has worked in Pacará for nineteen years and is
now teaching the children of her first students. She speaks hardly
any Wichí and at times feels isolated; Sundays can be very
boring for her, she said, and she spends the day listening to music
on her battery operated radio. She goes home to Oran for a few days
every two or three weeks if the roads are passable. She is a woman
of immense generosity, cheerfulness and patience.
José Galarza said that young people lack training.
Often, he said, people go off and get drunk because they have nothing
else to do (not a noticeable problem in Hoktek T’oi). There
is a need for projects which enable young people both to learn things
and do things.
José Galarza also asked
that we send him material in Spanish for people to teach themselves
English; this Chacolinks has done. The community is also joining
in selling their crafts through Chacolinks.
4. Holotaj (Tonono)
The community of Tonono or Holotaj, which is
mainly Pentecostal, is on Route 86 a few kilometres north of Pacará
and about eighteen kilometres northeast of Hoktek T’oi. It
is one of the Zlaqatahyi communities.
Tonono is threatened by the activities of a Korean
forestry company called Tucuman, and also deforestation already
caused by Swedish Pentecostal missionaries (formerly active in the
mission at Kilometre Six), and the Mennonite project. Mennonites
from Paraguay had visited Pacará, looking for land, and they
spoke Guarani to one another so that the Wichí would not
understand their discussions. They did not want to buy land around
Pacará because they could see it was already occupied. They
were accompanied by a Señor Rauch, a bigwig in local politics,
with land in the area, perhaps wanting to sell land to the Mennonites.
He is said to be Governor Romero’s adviser on fiscal lands.
He is very close to the Salta provincial government. John Palmer
has seen a plan which Rauch has drawn up for the local area –
the plan contains no mention of or consideration for the indigenous
The Mennonites envisage buying 100,000 hectares
of forested land between the Wichí communities of Tonono
and Aguaray. They plan to make an initial purchase of 12,000 hectares,
the deforestation of which they will complete in three years. They
are reported to have entered into negotiations with the Pentecostal
titleholders to 5,600 hectares near Tonono. The area contains former
Wichí settlement sites, gardens, hunting and gathering grounds,
and burial sites – sites already lost to deforestation carried
out by the Pentecostals. The connection between the Pentecostals
and the Paraguayan Mennonites is more than one of land purchase.
It is a fraternity in economic and land use principles.
It was said that the big agricultural companies
which come into the area put up electric fences which mean that
the Wichí cannot get across and visit each other. Desdelsur
does not abide by the law even regarding the distribution of ‘cortinas’
(rows of trees left as windbreaks) so people feel the effects of
the wind much more now. The heat is much more intense as well. Deforestation
by Desdelsur in the area round Pacará – a total of
80,000 hectares of Wichí land - continues.
There is also a small linked community
close by called Tsofwachat or Pozo Nuevo. It is one kilometre upriver
of Holotaj (For details of the current problems of Tsofwachat, see
the Newsletter section).
Another community currently interested in involvement
in the Zlaqatahyi project is Aguaray. I met and had a conversation
in Tartagal with Andres Lopez, the Cacique at Aguaray, at the beginning
Andres told me that the Wichí community
at Aguaray consists of about 42 families living on the eastern side
of the criollo settlement on the main road between Tartagal and
the Bolivian border, half an hour’s bus ride from Tartagal.
The Wichí occupy a piece of land totalling 169 hectares,
of which they do not have title. For lack of money, they cannot
pay taxes on it to the provincial government, so there is a danger
that the land may revert to the provincial government, or be sold
or allocated to someone else. To the south and east of the plot
is forested land owned by a farming company called Fontana, which
Andres thought was not planning to deforest it. The land to the
north and east of the plot is forested and hilly (so it may remain
forested). 169 hectares is insufficient to sustain the Wichí
community but it is a beginning. The community obtained personería
jurídica in 2000 so as to pursue title to the 169 hectares.
It is being assisted by Carlina, a foundation from Buenos Aires
which is obtaining the statutory three quotes from lawyers to present
to the government, which will then pay one of them to pursue the
land claim process. (In fact, I learnt from John Palmer, the foundation
is an individual philanthropist.)
The community’s basic need is land,
but it also needs help with health and livelihood. There is a problem
with criollo cattle in the area and also with an oil pipeline crossing
the middle of the community, coming down from the hills. The pipeline
is owned by Refinor, which is one of the private companies which
took over the assets of the state petroleum company Yacimiento Petroliferos
Fiscales in recent years. On several occasions, the pipeline has
ruptured, flooding the community with oil and on one occasion polluting
the animals’ pond. A gas pipeline also crosses the land.
6. The Zlaqatahyi Project
The Zlaqatahyi (‘Our Forest’) initiative
began in 2000, originating in Hoktek T'oi. (For background information,
see Report on ‘Our Forest’ Project (Zlaqatahyi), John
Palmer, March 2001). The organisation does not yet have personería
jurídica: this is because it has not been possible to work
on it: Hoktek T’oi has had a series of serious problems to
deal with since the initiative began: legal cases, police harassment,
fumigations, trying to keep people alive despite a lack of food;
and Wichí communities are all very self-contained, with their
own attachments to various ‘helping’ organisations:
the Anglicans, the Pentecostals, the Catholics, the government-created
Indigenous Peoples’ Organisation in the Province (the IPA),
and to local politicians, including mestizo politicians (those of
mixed indigenous and European descent). These factors work against
convergence, against communities working together in an inter-community
The direct request by José Galarza, President
of the community of Pacará, for a land survey of his community’s
area, was momentous: it showed that the people of Pacará
were eager to participate in the Zlaqatahyi process, and this would
show that Zlaqatahyi was not just Hoktek T'oi. It would demonstrate
that Zlaqatahyi was able to do a service for Pacará. In Lhaka
Honhat (see section 7), conditions were ripe for inter-community
organising because the Anglicans had worked in all the communities
for 50 years and there was a real present threat to all the communities
equally. In the Zlaqatahyi area, those unifying factors are absent.
Hoktek T'oi is in the front line of a wider battle, and resistance
by Hoktek T’oi will help protect communities further in the
forest. The threat to those communities by agricultural expansion
may not be equal to the threat posed to Hoktek T’oi, but it
is imminent. Encroachment through deforestation is happening constantly.
The communities involved in Zlaqatahyi are a
fluctuating number, but the core villages now supporting Zlaqatahyi
are Hoktek T'oi (Lapacho Mocho), Holotaj (Tonono) Qanohitaj (Pacará)
and Tsofwachat (Pozo Nuevo) and the community of Mawo Zlathi (La
Santos Basualdo spoke at the 6th October meeting
in Tonono about the pitfalls of reliance on politicians for the
progress of Wichí land rights. He said that politicians do
not have long lives. They are there for a few years and then gone.
‘What is long-lasting is the strength that we have as Wichí
elders,’ he said. Santos also talked about an incident in
the Acts of the Apostles involving Ananias and Sapphira. For Santos,
the significance of the story lay in the fact that they had sold
their land and then fallen down dead. Santos did not mention any
other details of the story: for him, the clear message was, if you
sell your land, you die. ‘We mustn’t sell ours,’
said Santos. (Ananias and Sapphira had sold their land and brought
some of the proceeds to the community but lied by saying that they
had brought all of the money. Both of them immediately dropped dead.
Traditionally, this has been understood as a stern exhortation to
both honesty and generosity.) ‘If we struggle for our land,’
Santos continued, ‘God will help us, because God is all-powerful.
We need title to our land.’
Another meeting was held on 8th October to discuss
the Zlaqatahyi project. José Galarza, Santos Basualdo and
other representatives from Pacará came to Hoktek T'oi. Santos
from Pacará and Roque from Hoktek T'oi spoke of their hopes
for progress through unity in the Zlaqatahyi process. It is important
that the momentum begun in then be continued.
Hoktek T'oi and Pacará both need a vehicle for
medical emergencies and the collection of supplies from Tartagal.
Zlaqatahyi needs money for running costs so that it is not forced
to borrow from other project funds.
Communication between communities
is difficult. It would be good to be able to communicate via radio,
and for this the appropriate radio equipment is necessary.
Medicines are needed. Foreign
ones are often not recognised by local health workers so it is better
to have money to buy these than to be sent them. Chacolinks has
on occasion supplied funds for emergency medical help.
Asociana is the social justice organisation of
the Anglican Diocese of Northern Argentina, based in Salta (Tel:
431 1718). The diocese splits its work into two: church pastoral
work and social action. It has various programmes, of which Asociana
is one. Asociana works semi-autonomously within the diocese, responding
to the bishop and Diocesan Council but able to develop its own work,
its own mission statement and objectives. Chris Wallis, who works
in the Salta office and with whom I spoke before travelling to Tartagal,
heads Asociana’s Land and Natural Resources Programme and
its Education Programme, which produces texts in indigenous languages
for literacy teaching. There is also an Economy Programme, which
is involved in honey production and handicrafts.
The Land and Natural Resources Programme consists
of three components:
1. Land rights
2. Organisation: the development of appropriate indigenous forms
of organisation adapted to the demands of contemporary Western society.
3. Natural resources: land without resources is of no practical
worth: the Wichí want to protect the land and develop the
traditional use of natural resources.
I spoke with Andrew Leake, working for the Land
Rights team, in his office in Tartagal, on October 1st. Andrew explained
that the Land Rights team is made up of a core of workers assisted
by volunteers. The team is overstretched. In theory, they work with
all the communities in the Anglican diocese – but in practice,
work overload means many communities have no Asociana presence.
Asociana works with communities regardless of creed but tries to
maintain a strong working relationship with local Anglican churches.
But land cuts across faith and much work has to be done through
secular indigenous organisations like Lhaka Honhat. Asociana tries
to make it clear that it is a Christian-based organisation which
is part of the Anglican Diocese but it does not proselytise. Asociana’s
Christian witness takes the form of attempting always to do its
work openly and efficiently.
There are three areas of work in which Asociana’s
Land Programme is involved:
1. Asociana’s flagship project is accompanying
Lhaka Honhat, which consists of 35 communities (out of a total of
44) in the Pilcomayo area. The primary thrust of the work is the
development and strengthening of the organisation of Lhaka Honhat.
This takes various forms including the development of links between
Lhaka Honhat and the government. There is also a big project documenting
the land use sites of all 44 communities in the area. That is a
Lhaka Honhat programme which Asociana advises. The project is being
done with the support of IWGIA.
But Lhaka Honhat has, at the time of writing,
not got a hectare of land returned to the Wichí people yet,
and communities need to see some benefit from membership of Lhaka
Honhat or they will abandon it; and Asociana has to help Lhaka Honhat
achieve something or the relationship between Asociana and Lhaka
Honhat will sour and then maybe rupture, which could cause long-term
problems of division between communities.
2. Asociana also works with Wichí communities
in the Tartagal area. This is more difficult because of indigenous
people taking on aspects of criollo culture. The Church owns title
to 350 hectares at Kilometre 16 near Hoktek T’oi. It is trying
to hand over title to the community but there has been a hold-up
because of government paperwork. Closer to Tartagal, the Church
owns three hectares at Lapacho Dos. It is trying to expand the holding
for the community there.
3. Asociana is also working with four communities
in the Bermejo region. These communities are living on around 10,000
hectares of land purchased by the Church in the 1970s when there
was the fear of people being expelled from their land.
Asociana tries to do its work without seeking
conflict – it does not endorse road blocks or massive protests,
for instance – but it could do so if necessary. It wants to
go about the process through legality and constructive engagement
with the government, without being trampled on. The process is made
more difficult by the outrageous lies and corruption of the government.
Asociana is hoping to construct a database of
population numbers, land use and land claimed for all Wichí
communities in the Chaco. Some have made it clear that they do not
want to participate, but the hope is that this could help make communities
as a whole stronger.
It is tremendously difficult not to get
sidetracked from strategically important tasks. In the office, people
come in all the time wanting help with all sorts of practical problems,
often personal problems. Sometimes a request for help of this sort
is linked with a conversation about the land claim process. The
practical problems are not part of Asociana’s work but if
workers do not attend to them then people will feel as if they have
not been listened to. Asociana would then lose the good will of
the people and then not be able to help communities with strategic
thinking and pursuing a strategic plan at all. But the small and
immediate, the crises and emergencies, are for ever pulling Asociana
workers away from important strategic tasks.
8. Lhaka Honhat (Our Land)
For background information on the Lhaka Honhat
project, see ‘Ohapehen honhat lhawo’ – the Wichí
Indians’ claim to belong to the Land, by Chris Wallis; Asociacion
de Comunidades Aborigenes Lhaka Honhat: Historia del Reclamo de
Tierras, Asociana, March 2000; The Wichí of Thlaqaho’nat:
an update on their land claim, John Palmer, February 1995.
In the discussions at Tonono on October 6th,
Lhaka Honhat (‘Our Land’), an indigenous organisation
involving Wichí communities close to the Pilcomayo River,
was mentioned as an example of communities working together in unity.
Lhaka Honhat has been pursuing a case against
the Argentine Government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,
involving the bridge across the Pilcomayo River, built without Wichí
consent. Lhaka Honhat is also implementing a community housing programme
with the help of Asociana (see section 7, above). One of the reasons
for the implementation of this programme is that the Wichí
have at present, yet to see any concrete progress as a result of
the Lhaka Honhat process; this lack of progress damages unity.
Communities involved in the process have not
yet received title to any of their land. The Pilcomayo experience
shows that the problem in Argentina is not one of law but of political
will. Political will can only be developed through publicising the
issues. Despite the process of dialogue, the national government
in 2001 authorised oil exploration in the Pilcomayo area, against
the interests of Lhaka Honhat and without consultation. The company
involved was the Compania General de Combustibles (CGC). The government
was pressing on with the construction of route 86 from Tartagal
to the border, against all previous agreements; it has also has
consistently misrepresented Lhaka Honhat.
Government attempts to divide communities in
the Pilcomayo from each other and from Lhaka Honhat were, at that
time, constant. The government even sent representatives into communities
in trucks by night carrying laptop computers, ready to arrange personería
jurídica immediately, and offering title to small amounts
of land if the community goes ahead with a claim separate from Lhaka
Honhat. Some communities have left Lhaka Honhat, and in communities
within Lhaka Honhat, some families are opposed to it. Four communities
have made separate claims to small amounts of land and been given
them, which punctures the unity of the single claim. The government
made deals with four families within communities, but they had no
personería jurídica, which means title is in the name
of the leader of the community, and when he dies they must either
go through a complicated inheritance process or lose title.
The source of Lhaka Honhat’s strength,
its organisational unity, is also a source of difficulty. In Lhaka
Honhat there is only one kind of personería jurídica,
a collective personería jurídica for all 35 communities
together as an association, so no single community can act in its
own name: everything has to be channelled through the association,
which means that communities cannot present any projects in their
own name. But it is impossible for the association to deal quickly
with all the needs of all the communities. Zlaqatahyi is being organised
in a more decentralised way to try to avoid this pitfall –
to try to create unity while at the same time allowing communities
the possibility of autonomous action on projects of their own.
Lhaka Honhat’s President, Francisco Perez,
believes strongly in the need for the current form of organisation,
and takes the view that some disaffection is inevitable whatever
form the organisation were to take. In Morita Carrasco’s study
of the Wichí in La Tierra Que Nos Quitaron (IWGIA, Copenhagen,
1996, p. 245) Francisco Perez says that whites think that indigenous
peoples are not organised; they are, however – it is just
that their form of organisation is different. There is therefore
a need for caution in advocacy and assistance for indigenous organisation
of the struggle for land – the indigenous struggle needs to
take into account the need to work within a white-controlled structure,
but if indigenous self-organisation becomes white (either successfully
or unsuccessfully) something of indigenous culture and self-respect
has been lost.
Francisco speaks of some of the costs of
organising themselves in a ‘white’ way: for instance,
Lhaka Honhat got personería jurídica and because of
this it then had to pay tax – but it had no money with which
to pay. Francisco talks of white organisations like Mercosur, the
World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the European
Union sending millions of dollars to do this or that, while the
Wichí are dying of hunger (Carrasco, op. cit., p. 247). So
he says ‘we don’t understand anything about organisations.’
He also says that the Wichí want to control projects designed
to assist them – if something is developed in Europe or elsewhere,
he says, the Wichí will not understand it – the Wichí
have to develop ideas themselves. It is important that solidarity
organisations bear this in mind at all times.
9. Divisions and Distractions
There are many divisions between different Wichí
communities. Those working in support of the Wichí find it
very difficult to know how to overcome the tendency of communities
to think only for their own community. They say that it is part
of Wichí culture and in that sense must have been useful
in the past and that it is important not to be disrespectful; but
strategically, in this situation of massive land encroachment, they
believe that it is suicidal.
Both the Lhaka Honhat and Zlaqatahyi projects
are hopeful vehicles for enabling communities to work together in
the face of a common threat. At the same time, they make clear how
difficult that can be. Zlaqatahyi involves different communities
obtaining their own personería jurídica in the hope
of balancing the need to work together with each community’s
sense of its own identity and community needs, in this way attempting
to avoid one of the sources of discontent which some communities
involved in the Lhaka Honhat project have felt.
The involvement of non-Wichí organisations
can increase divisions. Some Wichí communities are Anglican,
others Pentecostal. Hoktek T'oi is a shamanic community with at
least one Pentecostal family. Mision Wichí at Mosconi is
largely Pentecostal but with a Catholic presence. It was suggested
that one of the reasons a particular community may choose to associate
with one religious tradition rather than another could be the desire
to differentiate itself from neighbouring communities. Now that
these divisions are an accomplished historical fact, the important
thing is to ensure that those wishing to assist the Wichí
in their struggle to regain control of their land do not unwittingly
undermine that aim by deepening divisions between communities. The
fact that at Mosconi Pentecostals and Catholics seem to work well
together and that Pacará, an Anglican community, has been
happy to join with Tonono (largely Pentecostal) and Hoktek T'oi
in the Zlaqatahyi project, is very hopeful.
I felt a very deep respect and great affection
for all the ‘outsiders’ whom I met who were working
in support of the Wichí, particularly those fine individuals
who have chosen to live in Wichí communities and to give
so much of themselves in the struggle for justice for the Wichí.
When people care so much about the people to whom they have dedicated
their lives, it is understandable and inevitable that sometimes
differences of opinion can be very deeply felt, and that sometimes
this can inhibit the process of working together.
The different spellings of ‘Lhaka Honhat’
and ‘Zlaqatahyi’ point to this difficulty. The early
Anglican missionaries developed a way of writing down the Wichí
language which was based on English orthography. Hence the ‘lh’
represents a sound which, in Spanish, would be more understandably
rendered as ‘zl’. Now, some argue for retention of the
Anglican orthography because of length of use. Others argue passionately
that Wichí orthography should be based on Spanish (in so
far as that is possible), as that is the language of the overwhelming
majority of the people to whom the Wichí need to relate.
This difference of opinion has not just left the Wichí with
at least two competing ways of writing their language but also led
to a certain amount of ill-feeling between people whose own personal
goodness is frankly so transparent and beautiful that it moves me
to tears. My own feeling was that it is not only the Wichí
whom I met who are gems of humanity (though they certainly are)
but that their non-indigenous helpers are as well – all of
Given this wholly understandable state of affairs,
those of us who are attempting to assist the Wichí from far
away need to be sensitive to the potential impact of our assistance.
We need to offer assistance in ways which will not increase division
but co-operation. Different outside organisations need to be aware
of what each is doing, so that our work complements the work of
other bodies rather than duplicating or undermining it.
We also need to be aware that the Chaco-based
‘outsiders’ with whom we relate are overwhelmed with
the amount of work that they have to do. They all told me this.
All lamented the unremitting pressure of work and the fact that
they get continually sidetracked from strategic matters by the crises
of the moment – crises of ill health, inadequate food, land
encroachment, court cases, even physical attacks – among the
Wichí communities with whom they are working. Such emergencies
cannot ever be ignored, but attending to them means that longer-term
work is continually being set aside.
All the communities visited expressed great appreciation
for our presence, for the interest taken in them by groups from
Europe, for the gifts which we took, and for the practical assistance
which we were able to offer. People at Hoktek T'oi had happy memories
of the previous visits from supporters of Chacolinks, and were eager
for them to return. Santos Basualdo in Pacará expressed the
view that we had been sent by God to carry news of the area to the
outside world so that others would help the Wichí in their
struggle for their land. This imposes on us all a burden of responsibility
to do our best to live up to the expectations which are inevitably
raised whenever outside organisations take an interest in indigenous
struggles. I did my best to make clear that there are severe limits
to what groups in Britain can do. I also promised that we would
do our best to help. There can be no group of people who are more
worthy of our support and solidarity that the Wichí, whose
culture points the way to a saner way of organising the world, in
which bombs, terrorism, imperialism and vengeance play no part
I wish to thank all of the following for their
kindness, warmth, friendship and hospitality, and for providing
the information which has formed the basis of this report: the people
of Hoktek T'oi, particularly Jose Ruiz, Antea, Roque and Coco; the
people of Pacará, particularly Jose Galarza, Santos Basualdo
and Isabel Flores; the people of Tonono; Chris Wallis and Andrew
Leake of Asociana; the staff at the Asociana offices in Salta and
Tartagal; Margarita Filippini, Pedro Tolaba and Miguel Angel Lorenzo
at Mosconi; the proprietors of the Hotel Malvinas in Tartagal; Arturo
‘el Rey’ and his family, especially Nicolas, in Tartagal;
America Aleman in Salta; Morita Carrasco in Buenos Aires; Mariela
del Valle Llabra and the English language students at El Colegio
Big Ben in Tartagal; and above all, John Palmer, for arranging and
co-ordinating our visit and proving himself to be such a kind host
and a good friend
A note on ‘Planes Trabajar’
When Roque Miranda, Encargado of Hoktek T'oi,
spoke about the community wanting land rather than work from the
government, he was referring to the ‘Planes Trabajar’
(Work Plans) which had been implemented in some of the other Wichí
communities. On 27th September, a community leader from Kilometre
16, Florentino, who maintains good relations with people at Hoktek
T’oi, visited the Zlaqatahyi office, and I asked him to explain
the Planes Trabajar, which have been a source of income to the people
at Kilometre 16.
The government, Florentino told me, provides
money for Planes Trabajar devised by communities with the help of
technical advisers. There is a limited amount of Work Plan money
available - at the time of our conversation, there was funding for
400 individual Work Plans for the whole Province of Salta. So distribution
of the plans is scattered. In Kilometre 16 there were 25 people
employed on Work Plans – one project had fifteen workers,
another ten. One project was Vivero Forestal, which includes collecting
forest plants and planting them in the village. The other was the
growing and maintenance of a vegetable garden in the village. The
plans pay each participant $160 a month, and last for three months.
The work is inspected by a government employee, but as the inspectors
come from Salta they often do not get to Kilometre 16 because of
distance, weather and road conditions. When a project has two weeks
left to run, the community can apply to renew it for another three
months, though six months is the maximum for any project. These
renewals have taken place in Kilometre 16 even when inspections
have not taken place.
Participants in each Work Plan elect a ‘responsable’
who has to relate to the government and sort out any problems. There
have been problems: participants have to go to the Banco de la Nacion
in Tartagal each month to collect their pay, and sometimes it is
not there because the government has not registered all the names
of the participants. Then that has to be sorted out so that eventually
the participants get their pay. Another problem occurred with an
earlier Work Plan at Kilometre 16: they, together with four other
communities around Tartagal, were given a Work Plan to build a community
centre – but no materials with which to build it. At the end
of three months, each community was given a three month extension,
but then the government was angry at the lack of progress. The five
communities sent representatives to Salta to explain the problem,
and eventually the national government provided money for materials.
Now they have the materials to build the centres but nobody employed
to build them. They will either have to divert people from existing
plans or come up with a fresh plan to construct the community centre.
It certainly would be better if the government agreed to provide
the necessary materials at the same time as agreeing to pay the
People working on Work Plans do not work full
time on them – perhaps just during the mornings. So they have
time to do other work as well.
Work Plans have at times been taken from one
community by another. This is possibly because the responsable is
personally in charge of the funds and the plan, and because a community
without personería jurídica cannot sign for a plan
and has to have the help of a community which does have personería
jurídica. This can cause problems of corruption, as in a
case where the number of people involved was split between Tonono
and Tartagal. The workers from Tartagal never turned up, so the
project was never successfully completed; but the Tartagal workers
did draw their pay. Tonono had no power in the matter because it
did not have personería jurídica. This corruption
can occur because the community which is legally responsible (in
this case, the people at Tartagal) can change the names of the people
listed as being involved in the plan, whereas the community without
personería jurídica cannot do so.
The ‘technicos’ (technical
advisers) who help draw up the Work Plans for communities and get
them approved by the government take a percentage of the money paid
to each participant – in the case of Kilometre 16, $3 per
person per month.
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