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Leapfrogging the Law

Deforestation of Indigenous Lands in Northern Argentina 

The recent troubles in Argentina have brought that one wealthy country to world attention. The impoverishment of the middle classes, and the growing cynicism of the people's view of their politicians, have been widely reported. No coverage, though, has been given to Argentina's very poorest - the country's First Peoples, vilified as 'savages' by the settler population and consigned to voicelessness by the press.

The lowland tropical forests of northern Argentina, known to the Incas as the Chaco, are home to numerous indigenous peoples. Between the two rivers that cross the Chaco, the Pilcomayo and the Bermejo, live the Wichí people. Within this area, which is about half the size of England, there are approximately 50,000 Wichí, making them one of the largest and most widespread indigenous peoples of lowland South America. Traditionally they live in clusters of relatively small, mobile, kin-based communities. Food-production is sustainably based on seasonal hunting, gathering, gardening and fishing.

Wichí culture disallows aggression, because it is understood to be the antithesis of proper personhood and the undoing of human society. Instead, value is placed on the spiritual aspect of human beings, which manifests itself in 'goodwill'. For the Wichí, goodwill is the essence of social life - it keeps the peace and consolidates community relations. A leader, whom the Wichí identify as the linchpin of collective life, should be a person of exemplary goodwill, giving without counting the cost and working selflessly on behalf of his (or sometimes her) dependents, whose well-being is his/her responsibility. The shaman - a (male or female) spirit-healer - complements the leader by protecting community members against illness, understood as a spiritual affliction caused directly or indirectly by a lack of goodwill.

Besides leaders and shamans, the Wichí have another resource that secures their physical and spiritual integrity (their 'greenness' and 'goodwill', in Wichí terms). This is their land, meaning particularly its forest cover. The Wichí are forest people, even to the extent that they compare themselves to trees, saying that they are born of their lands like the trees rooted in the earth. In Wichí cosmology, the world is a forest bordered by rivers and mountains.That forest, they say, is their 'source of life' and their 'protection'. It provides food, medicines and the materials on which their social life and material culture are founded. And it acts as a shelter against an otherwise excruciating climate. The highest temperatures in South America (over 40° C) have been recorded in Wichí territory. Without the forest biomass, only lizards can survive the wilting heat of the sun. And the soil is rapidly eroded by tropical rainstorms and strong winds.

The Chaco forest is very diverse in its composition and structure, ranging from a relatively high canopy with little undergrowth to a dense tangle of creepers, cacti, trunks and branches that claw at the unwary with fierce thorns. By virtue of its impenetrability, it has shielded the Wichí from large-scale military campaigns, colonization and extractive industries. But soldiers, settlers and timber merchants have been steadily advancing on the Wichí and their lands since the days of the Spanish empire. Given their aversion to aggression, the Wichí have not opposed this invasion of their lands, trusting in goodwill to prevail and prevent loss of life. But four centuries of ever-increasing contact have taught them that their goodwill is not reciprocated. The outsiders have come in the interests of greed rather than goodwill. For the best part of 100 years, even the remotest regions in the Wichí's homelands have been appropriated by absentee land-speculators or overrun by land-hungry frontiersmen. Today the Wichí's forests are lacerated with the scars of non-indigenous livestock-raising, logging and oil extraction.

Most recently, and most perniciously, a new attack has been launched against the Wichí and their homelands: extensive clear-cut deforestation carried out in the interests of agribusiness. Having been ransacked for their commercially valuable hardwoods, the ancestral forests of the Wichí are now being bulldozed and reduced to ashes by Argentine, Chilean, Paraguayan and Korean companies such as Desdelsur, Los Cordobeses, and Hermanos Molina. 
Deforestation is a brutal act of machismo: laying the earth bare by strip-clearing its forest cover is like skinning an animal alive. If you bear in mind that deforestation is immediately followed by sowing the exposed soil with agricultural seeds, it begins to look like a form of rape: tearing the clothes off a woman's body for the sake of forced insemination. For the Wichí, watching from the edge of the remaining forest, it is a case of contemplating the ugly underside of Argentine nation-building - tractors hauling logs out of the forest, agricultural machinery obliterating the biodiverse environment, low-flying light aircraft filling the air with agrochemicals. All the while, these activities carried out in a spirit of capitalist enterprise inflict a lingering death on the indigenous inhabitants. Slaughtered on the altar of material progress, the Wichí, like indigenous peoples throughout the world, are the sacrificial victims of so-called 'human evolution'.

This evolutionary progress, however, is illicit, because deforestation violates both indigenous and environmental laws operating within Argentina. The provincial government is happy to issue deforestation permits - declaring them to be in the interests of the local economy - but the permits themselves are unlawful. Permission to deforest is granted without taking the Wichí into account, as though they were not there, whereas according to the Constitution they are entitled to full ownership of their traditional territory. The permits also contravene the conservationist principles enshrined in environmental legislation. The Argentine legislature passes progressive laws which the administration famously disobeys. And if you take the matter to court, the judiciary finds in favour of the administration - by arguing, typically, that indigenous and environmental rights are less important than rights to private property and development.

Further irregularities invariably occur in the deforestation operation itself, which never fails to flout the regulations concerning the procedure that should be followed. To give just one example, there is a regulation requiring that strips of forest be left intact, but it is never respected. When the Wichí report such contraventions to the authorities, the bureaucratic state machinery grinds into action, inspections are carried out, the wrongdoings are recorded . . . and the matter stops there, no matter how many times the Wichí lodge a complaint. There is an undisguised symbiosis between government and capital investment, one that unabashedly condones the destruction of a millenial culture and its millenial ecosystem. This brazen disregard for legality on the part of judges, politicians and private enterprise is what the Wichí refer to as 'leapfrogging the law'.

What hope is there for the Wichí and the indigenous peoples of the Chaco, if Argentina continues to treat the fragile natural environment so recklessly and fails to heed the cries against this injustice?

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