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Attacks on Wichí Communities: Tsofwachat (Pozo Nueveo) 2005

During the summer of 2005 an unnamed company began without warning to fence off a large area of forest (at least 5000 hectares) close to Holotaj (known as Tonono in Spanish) threatening to leave it and the neighbouring community of Tsofwachat (Pozo Nuevo) hemmed in by agribusiness on all sides. This is ancestral forest which under Argentine Law belongs to the local indigenous people: any development of it can be carried out only with their permission. The injustice of this development sparked off direct action on the part of the Wichí of Zlaqatahyi, and they began to tear up the fence and to impound a vehicle owned by the company. This action was within the rights of the local community in defence of their property, which was under imminent threat. The communities started a peaceful blockade, supported by other members of the Zlaqatahyi communities, which lasted 52 days. Then on the 8th July, the men set off for Salta to request that the area be declared a Cultural Natural Reserve in accordance with Provincial law no. 7.107. This left mainly women, children and old people behind. 

However while the men were away, there was a violent response on the part of the police who entered the community of Pozo Nuevo with over 60 heavily armed riot-squad police, wearing bullet-proof vests. They were accompanied by employees of the company (which we now know to be Lazcano and Olivera) who were involved in the initial attempt to fence off the land. They had been granted the deeds to the forest: this is typical of the disconnection in Argentina between the rights of the indigenous peoples on paper and the injustices which they daily receive in practice.

The police towed away the impounded van, and then as they left, opened fire, with bullets of rubber and of lead. A village elder, José Galarza was seriously wounded and narrowly escaped with his life: he was hit at point blank range. He was hospitalised and 40 bullets were removed from his body; others had hit him in the cheek and ear. He was said to be a shadow of his former self. (Fifteen months later, to the great sorrow of his community, he died.) His sister was hospitalised after being overcome with tear gas and has also died. The Wichí were all unarmed. 

The blockade was begun after a series of attempts by the company to pressurise the Wichí of the area to allow the land to be fenced off, including offering to build a village hall in exchange, and on one occasion, offering water to the local children that was contaminated with herbicide. The Wichí have long been used to attempts to dispossess them of their lands; it seems as soon as one battle is over, another opens up. 

In 2008 we heard that the police commissioner responsible for that attack is finally to stand trial. He has been formally charged with responsibility for the violence used by the police force he had under his command. The Wichí believe that it is thanks to Chacolinks that this crucial procedural step has been taken. 

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