The Qom, the Indigenous People Who Came to Buenos Aires

By  |  15 / June / 2011

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For more than five months, indigenous Argentinians from the community of Primavera set up camp in the small plazas on The Ninth of July and Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires.  They came from the distant town of Formosa to condemn the burning of their homes and the assassination of a Qom elder by the provincial police.  They came trying to gain some clout by setting up camp at the center of things to make their situation more visible. But the presidency responded with silence and indifference. So they decided that they would begin a hunger strike and march along the 9th of July Avenue to block it.

And then this past April 30, they received an official answer.  The day was selected with surgical precision.  It was during the afternoon with rain threatening in the distance.  The guardians of the news were not on the alert since there would be no daily papers on Sunday, the first of May. In this sleepy ambience, the Buenos Aires legal system issued an order to clear the street.  Generally the federal police, an arm of the ministry of the interior, ignore such orders.  But in this case, the reaction was swift.  A hundred troops surrounded the demonstration and forced the blockade to be lifted.  That day, the Qom began the sixth day of their hunger strike.

The issue had become a problem for the presidency. The strategy of indifference had failed and the cost of defending its ally, the governor of Formosa Gildo Insfran, had become too steep.  It was thus that minister of the Interior Florencio Randazzo received the Qom commission on May 9th, which then put forward its two chief demands: justice for the 62-year-old elder Roberto López and the return of expropriated lands that were theirs by law and tradition.

The ministry committed itself to biweekly dialog to solve the conflict over the 1300 hectares that the community claims, which are currently controlled by the large landowners the Celía family and the state government. With regard to the murder, the minister said very little and even challenged the authority of the cacique that had led the five-month protest in Buenos Aires and suggested that his role as leader be put to a community vote.

The Origin of the Conflict

The Qom community of The Primavera is made up of some 4500 inhabitants.  Originally from the province of Formosa on the border with Paraguay, their ethnic group is also known as Toba, a name given to them by the Guaranies.  As is true with almost all indigenous communities in Argentina, their circumstances are virtually ignored in a society that thinks of itself as “descended from ships.”  However, the fight for land and territory which continue in the provincial state has grown to such a size that it has broken the media barrier which customarily keeps the interior of the country invisible to those in Buenos Aires.

The dispute is over 1300 hectares of deforested, waterless land.  It is land which by ancestral tradition belongs to the indigenous community, but which the governor is trying to grant to the Celía family.

The community has looked to President Cristina Fernández since 2008 when its members sent their first letters.  “Weary of making claims, of making demands, and of not finding solutions,” as the community said in a communication dated July 25, 2010 they created a picket line across National Route 86 in Formosa.  After four months, on November 23, Governor Insfrán ordered that the blockade be broken up. The police advanced with rubber and lead bullets and murdered Roberto López.  In reaction to this, the indigenous participants caused the death of a policeman. During the confrontation, the Qom fled.  In revenge, the police looted and burned the community’s homes.

It is in this context that in December the Qom began their encampment in the very center of Buenos Aires where for five months they passed on information about culture, politics and human rights.  One of the participants was the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano who said “[The indigenous] have a voice, but they are the not heard. They who are now justly camped here, surrounded by general disrespect, almost silence, they are those of whom the government  does not take even the slightest notice, when instead they should be the first in line, long before all the politicians who seek little bits of power.”

Formosan Inmates

The journal Mu, in its last issue, published an article by the journalist Dario Aranda.  Extracts from a conversation with Yael Roberto López, son of the Qom elder who was killed, were published.  Yael says, “Papa always voted for Insfrán.  He voted for Kirchner and also for Cristina.  If he was a Peronista, why did they kill him?”  Yael was baffled.

Insfrán is the governor of Formosa, a strong ally of the national government.  He was a deputy between 1983 and 1987, the year in which he became vice-governor.  In 1995 he won election as governor and since then has been the provincial leader.  He was a Menemista, a Duhaldista, and from 2003 a soldier of Kirchnerismo.  In the current year, 2011, he stood for reelection.  In 2007 he gained an overwhelming seventy five percent of the votes.  Coincidentally, Aranda points out, this is the same percentage of indigenous households that are poor, according the official Plan Formosa 2015.

In the document “We Demand Respect” of April, 2010, Amnesty International confirmed the official statistics: “The provincial government has not only contributed to the violation of rights, but also has strengthened the historical problems of discrimination, exclusion and poverty in the indigenous communities.”

However, the strategy of the provincial government to avoid responsibilities and debate is to divide the community.  The minister of government, justice and work of Formosa, Jorge Abel González declared on March 26th that, “The Formosan government maintains permanent dialogue with all of the 180 aboriginal communities that live in the provincial territory, and the only ones that are not open to dialog are from Primavera.” In the same way as Minister of the Interior Randazzo, the provincial government puts divisions within the community at the center of the debate, divisions that certainly exist and which find expression through the two leadership groups: that of Feliz Diaz, which is militant and which brought to fruition the encampment in Buenos Aires and that of the cacique Fernando Sanabria who answers to the governor.

Land and Soy Production

The dispute over the lands in Formosa puts on the agenda the most important debate, that of the advancement of the extractive model (used in petroleum, soy production and mining) which does not restore indigenous rights.

On April 27, three days before the Qom were forced off Avenue 9 of July, the president announced that he was sending to Congress a legal project to regulate the sale of land to foreigners. However, according to Aranda, “to regulate the foreign ownership of lands does not fight the heart of rural injustice: the concentration of the land.”  According to the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, two percent of agroindustrial operations control half of the land of the country, while 57 percent of the small farmers, largely campesinos and small producers, have only 3 percent of the land.[i]

Another obstacle facing campesinos and indigenas is the agroindustrial model which promotes the advance of monocultivation, especially of soy.  More numbers:  In 2001, 10 million hectares of soy were planted in the country.  In 2003, the year in which Kirchnerismo took over, it had risen to 12 million hectares.  Then after seven years of [the Kirchner] administration, the monocultivation of soy reached a record of 19 million hectares, or fifty-six percent of cultivated land.  In spite of the fact that in 2008 rural landowners began a lockout against the government, the cultivation of soy had never before grown to such magnitude.

What is certain is that the present model is one of neo-development that is trying to empower the industrial section of agroindustry over the ”agro” section.  However, as always in the history of Argentina, renewing the industrial machine requires currency.  And this currency goes straight into the public coffers by way of the sale of commodities, in this case, mainly soy.

It deals with a model that runs along the limits of agriculture, and of the indigenous populations.  According to the National Indigenous Campesino Movement (MNCI-Via Campesino) about 200,000 rural families have been expelled to make room for soy production.

The government finds itself at a crossroads.  Although the most likely outcome is that the sitting president will be reelected in October, events like these demonstrate that “the model” is in a sense hostage to an economic project that generates consequences neither wished for nor sought in rural areas.  But it also is hostage to the broad territorial alliances that guarantee governability but provoke ideological contradictions that are not always easy to disentangle.


[i] www.darioaranda.wordpress.com