Argentina’s Mapuche Community Stands Up to Benetton in Struggle for Ancestral Lands

Residents of Lof Cushaman hold a banner calling for an end to police repression, persecution, harassment and freedom for their traditional leader Facundo Huala. (Photo: Lof Cushaman en Resistencia.)Residents of Lof Cushaman hold a banner calling for an end to police repression, persecution, harassment and freedom for their traditional leader Facundo Huala. (Photo: Lof Cushaman en Resistencia.)

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“They are afraid more people and more communities are going to rise up, because we have shown others what is possible,” said Mirta Curruhuinca, a Mapuche woman from the Indigenous area of Lof Cushamen in Argentina. “And if more people rise up and recover their lands, there will be no way to stop them.”

The Mapuche have begun to reshape history by moving back onto the Patagonian land in the Chubut Province of Argentina that has been part of their ancestral history for more than 1,400 years. The transnational fashion company Benetton claims ownership to the land and force has repeatedly been used against Mapuche people who have sought to move back onto it.

“Benetton Out! This is Ancestral Mapuche Land.” (Photo: Movimiento Mapuche Autónomo del Puelmapu)

While the majority of the world’s population is slumbering, anaesthetised by capitalism’s promotion of individualism, selfishness, privatization and fixation on monetary value, in a small corner of Patagonia, Argentina, Curruhuinca’s Mapuche community — fuelled by their traditions, culture and ancestral wisdom — have begun to cut down fences and build a new life.

The name “Mapuche” means “People of the Earth” (“Mapu” is Earth and “Che” is people), and the Mapuche community of Lof Cushamen finds incomprehensible the ongoing pillaging of the Earth’s resources for private profit and the culture of neoliberal capitalism that asks, “What will I get out of it?” rather than “What is right?”

A Mapuche woman named Rosa Currinanko told me: “The Mapu has her own law and every now and again, she makes it known. Her law is more powerful than the law of the white people, but they don’t want to understand that. When the Mapu decides to overturn a mountain she will do just that and nobody — not anybody — can stop her.”

On June 29, 2016, the Mapuche community of Lof Cushamen in Patagonia found themselves confronted by 150 heavily armed police who, on the pretext of finding cattle belonging to a nearby estate, used rubber bullets and tear gas to repress and intimidate the small group of women, children and men present. This is the second police raid suffered by Lof Cushamen in just one month. On May 27, 2016, in an equally violent attack, one of the community’s traditional representatives or Lonco, Facundo Huala Jones, was arrested; he is still in preventative detention.

“I was dragged from my home by heavily armed police who celebrated my arrest, mocked and threatened me,” Huala Jones said from his prison cell in the city of Ezequiel. “We have suffered numerous episodes of violence, but there is no doubt these are intensifying as our resistance continues.”

Just over a year ago, the Mapuche community of Lof Cushamen decided to move back onto a piece of land that is part of their ancestral history but not yet recognized as such by the Argentinean government.

Over the past 500 years, they have survived a colonial invasion by the Spaniards and the Argentinean government’s 1870-74 Conquest of the Desert intended to kill Indigenous people and bring “civilization” to Patagonia. This genocide was partly funded by the British, who supplied Remington rifles in exchange for 1 million hectares of land that it named the Argentinean Southern Land Company. In 1991, this company was bought over by multimillionaire Luciano Benetton, whose clothing brand markets itself using imagery of racial harmony and whose ever expanding empire today includes mobile phone companies.

But members of this Mapuche community do not respect the property claims of Benetton.

Rosa Currinanko, whose community, Santa Rosa Leleque, successfully recovered 620 hectares of land after almost a decade of violent confrontation with Benetton, said: “We are not the owners of the Earth. We are part of it, so it is not possible for anyone to give out titles or put up fences on something they do not own. As part of the Earth, we are responsible for looking after her so that there is harmony and balance.”

Like the Algonquin Indigenous peoples, who saw those consumed by greed, excess and selfish consumption as suffering from Wetiko, the Mapuche believe in spirits known as Wefkufe, whose energies disturb the Earth’s harmony and cause illness, divisions and death. Disembodied spirits, the Wefkufe take on solid form when they are introduced into the body of a victim, who then becomes possessed with the disruptive energy. Those who do not respect the laws of nature are often punished with Wefkufe.

Filling us with this same disruptive energy, neoliberal capitalism has stolen our souls and possessed us so that we have become complicit in the tyranny and increasing authoritarianism of the neoliberal system. People living under neoliberal capitalism are thus exhorted to focus on material priorities and prevented from even imagining alternatives. When the neoliberal onslaught began in the 1980s, one of its key instigators, Margaret Thatcher, was clear that, “Economics is the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

Amidst the destruction being wrought on Lof Cushamen and the century-long indescribable cruelty inflicted on the Mapuche, Don Atilio, one of the community’s elders, said the community will continue to resist:

Here we are, resisting and here we will stay because it is impossible now not to think of standing up and resisting. The only thing that has managed to put a stop to multinational corporations is popular mobilization. It is the only thing that can save us. We do not accept the mandate of European capitalism, the Argentinean judicial system or police violence. We will be here, loyal to the land of our ancestors and the wind that has spoken to us for centuries.

Distracted by the din of consumption, the majority of the world no longer listens to the wind. But we can begin to awaken. We can liberate ourselves from the selfish and consumptive spirit that has possessed us. First we must see it, name it in ourselves, in others and in our cultural infrastructure.

“The government and the companies fear this land recovery because it challenges the way things are,” Mirta Curruhuinca said. “People say to us, ‘You are on Benetton’s land,’ but we don’t see it that way. The Earth belongs to all of us. It is not an object that can be bought or sold.”

As neoliberalism — and its corollaries of greed, hoarding, extraction, exploitation, hierarchy, patriarchy and elitism — brings the world to the brink of collapse, the struggle of Lof Cushamen reminds us that the existing struggle is not just for land but also for freedom from a culture that exhorts us to believe that everything can be bought and sold — including our minds, our bodies and our consciousness. Only a collective awakening will enable us to reclaim our self-sovereignty and our collective sense of agency, and begin to reshape history as stewards of a new way.

This essay is part of the #SeeingWetiko series. You can visit www.seeingwetiko.com to see more contributions.