Leapfrogging the Law

| 1st June 2003
The economic troubles in Argentina have been widely reported around the world. The impoverishment of the middle classes and the Argentines’ growing cynicism about their politicians have been extensively written up. Less well covered in the news has been the effects of the crisis on Argentina’s very poorest – people who live far from the eye of city-based reporters, the country’s original inhabitants, a people despised and vilified as ‘savages’ by the settler population.

Indigenous hunter-gatherers originally, the Wichí live in northern Argentina’s tropical lowlands, in the central area of what the Incas called the Chaco. To the north and south, the Wichí’s homelands are bordered by the two rivers that cross the Chaco – the Pilcomayo and the Bermejo. Within this area, which is about half the size of England, there are approximately 50,000 Wichí people. The Wichí are, therefore, one of the largest and most widespread indigenous groups of lowland South America. Traditionally, they live in clusters of relatively small, mobile, kin-based communities. They produce their food sustainably through seasonal hunting, gathering, gardening and fishing.

The Wichí are an unaggressive people. In fact, aggression is culturally disallowed by them; they see it as the antithesis of proper personhood and the undoing of human society. Instead, they value the spiritual aspect of human beings, which manifests itself in ‘goodwill’. For the Wichí, goodwill is the essence of social life; it consolidates community relations and keeps the peace. A leader, whom the Wichí identify as the linchpin of collective life, should be a person of exemplary goodwill, should give without counting the cost and work selflessly on behalf of his (or sometimes her) dependents. The individual and collective well-being of those dependents is the priority. The shaman, or spirit-healer – who may be either male or female – complements the leader, protecting community members against illness, which is understood as a spiritual affliction caused by a lack of goodwill in the group.

Besides these human resources – leaders and shamans – the Wichí have another resource that secures their physical and spiritual integrity. This is their land, particularly the forest that covers that land. The Wichí say that the forest 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. It is integral to their cosmology, and acts, in a very real sense, as a shelter – like the walls and roof of a house in which life can survive the rigours of an otherwise excruciating climate. South America’s highest temperatures (of over 40° centigrade) have been recorded in Wichí territory . Without the shade afforded by the forest only lizards would be able to survive the wilting heat of the sun, and without the forest to protect it the soil would be 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 thick, thorny tangle of creepers, cacti and stocky tree trunks. By virtue of its impenetrability, it has hitherto shielded the Wichí from large-scale military campaigns, colonisation 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, and have trusted in goodwill to prevail and prevent loss of life. Four centuries of ever-increasing contact, however, 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 have been 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 the lands on which they live: extensive clear-cut deforestation carried out on behalf of agribusiness. Having been looted of their commercially valuable hardwoods, the ancestral forests of the Wichí are now being bulldozed and reduced to ashes. 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. Watching from the forest, the Wichí are forced to contemplate the ugly underside of Argentine nation-building – tractors hauling hardwood trunks out of the forest, industrial machinery obliterating the forest environment, low-flying light aircraft filling the air with agrochemicals. All the while, these activities inflict a lingering death on the indigenous inhabitants. The Wichí, like indigenous peoples throughout the world, are the sacrificial victims of so-called ‘human evolution’. Collectively, they are like a foetus torn from the womb and slaughtered on the altar of material progress.

This evolutionary progress, however, is illicit; it is against the law. By ‘illicit’ I do not mean that it is done without official authorisation (though this is sometimes the case). Indeed, the region’s provincial government is happy to issue deforestation permits; it considers them to be in the interests of the local economy. The permits are unlawful, for two reasons. First they ignore indigenous rights enshrined in Argentina’s constitution and numerous national and provincial laws. Permission to clear the forests is granted without taking the Wichí into account, as though they were not there or did not exist. In law the Wichí are entitled to full ownership of their traditional territory.

The second reason the permits are unlawful is because they contravene the conservationist principles that inform Argentine environmental legislation. The Argentine legislature passes progressive laws, which the administration then famously disobeys. And if you take these infringements 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. The regulations concerning the procedure that should be followed are routinely flouted. To give just one example, there is a regulation, never respected, which stipulates that strips of forest have to be left every 400 metres so as to prevent soil erosion. 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, irrespective of how many times a complaint is lodged. There is an undisguised symbiosis between government and capital investment, one that unabashedly condones the destruction of an ancient culture and an ancient 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’.

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

Please write and protest against the destruction of the Wichí lands. Address your letters to Dr Juan Carlos Romero, and send them to him at: Gobernador de la Provincia de Salta, Gran Bourg, Avenida de los Incas s/n, 4400 Salta, Argentina; to fax them to Romero, dial: (00 +54) 387 436 0400

For more information and updates on the Wichí, visit the Chacolinks website at: www.chacolinks.org.uk

Chacolinks offers support for the oppressed indigenous peoples of northern Argentina. It aims to provide material assistance through small-scale projects set up to relieve poverty, and it lobbies for the upholding of indigenous land rights at both national and provincial levels of government. Chacolinks is focusing its efforts on the Wichí villages close to Tartagal in Salta province, especially Hoktek T'oi (Lapacho Mocho) and Holotaj (Pacará). It is providing fabrics and embroidery threads for the women of these communities, so they can hand-sew clothes that they can wear and sell. It has also sent educational material to these communities, is funding a clean water supply for the village of Hoktek T'oi, and has given financial support towards the building of a fence around the community.

For more information about Chacolinks, e-mail Clare Passingham at: passinc@surfaid.org

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003


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