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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. 

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 Loma). 

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.

7. Asociana

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 them.

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.

10. Appreciation

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 workers.

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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