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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 the Wichí.

1. Introduction

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 affairs.

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 exhausted.

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 in Argentina.

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 community.

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 criollos’ possessions.

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 weeks.

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 old medicines.

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 inhabitants.

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).

5. Aguaray

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 of October.

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 organisation.