10/06/09: Divisions of Power and Interest – Land Conflicts in Santa Rosa
University College of London
I first went to the hut of Rosa and Atilio of the Mapuche Santa Rosa community, Chubut Province, Patagonia, at 8am on a cold morning. The hut is set next to a wooden bridge over a babbling brook, in a valley surrounded by high peaked, snow-clad mountains. When I knocked on the wooden gate, I was nervous to see huge brightly colored placards declaring the struggle that the Santa Rosa Mapuche community were waging against Benetton to reclaim their land. Yet, after shouting ´hola´ several times, Rosa came out briskly, followed by a trail of chickens, to see who was calling. I followed her inside the hut, to a warmly lit hearth. Thus, began my journey to engage and understand more about the Mapuche and their struggle to reclaim the land of Santa Rosa, from the large multinational Benetton, who had bought much of the land, and who is heavily supported by the Argentinean government.
The most striking feature to emerge in the conversation was that the meaning of a right, such as the right of access to land, is culturally constructed. A key factor that perpetuates land conflicts is the divergent perspectives in regards to what land symbolizes and who has access to such land. From Benetton’s perspective, the Santa Rosa land is an object, a piece of land, that the multinational has bought and hence has the right to privately own, where land is valued by its price in a consumer market. However, for the Mapuche, everyone shares a communal right of access to the land. Furthermore, the Mapuche have a spiritual connection to the land 'of their ancestors', and land is thus not perceived as an entity that can be bought, sold or substituted for other land as compensation. Such perspectives are further reinforced by cultural customs. For example, the Mapuche´s relationship to the land is reinforced through the meaning of the word Mapuche, which signifies ´people of the land´, and through festivities, such as the dance in February, where the Mapuche of Santa Rosa pray for the rains to come and fertilize the soil.
Often such divergent perspectives perpetuate land conflicts because one group tries to enforce their perspective as the prevailing discourse. They may do this through the use of their economic, social and political capital. The dominant perspective may also be imposed through the use of force. Foucault argues that the state has a monopoly on force, being the only body to legally exert forceful actions through the police or army, yet criminalizing non-state actors when they use force to undermine the state’s discourse. Thus, Benetton, supported by the state, has imposed their perspective that the Santa Rosa land is exclusively and privately owned by the multinational. The dominant person or group may also impose their perspective as the ´right or good´ discourse by labeling the opposing group with a negative identity. The police have forcefully upheld such territorial claims, but the Mapuche have been ´criminalized´ in the media as law-breakers, when they have thrown stones at the well-armed police, as a final resort to reinstate their right of access to the land.
Such a power differential that perpetuates land conflicts is also exerted in regards to the politics of identity. The dominant person or group may silence other discourses by socializing citizens into a constructed concept of Mapuche identity. For example, in the Benetton-sponsored Leleque museum, the Mapuche identity is historically constructed as a ´product of the past´ which no longer exists. Such a portrayal attempts to silence the Mapuche´s claims for their right of access to their land, as both the Mapuche and their claims are constructed as non-existent. Such methods of silencing their claims are also produced by the socialization of students at school into an Argentinean history and identity, that does not take into account the displacement of the Mapuche from their land, firstly by the conquistadors, and later by the state and state-supported multinationals.
Such an unequal distribution of power and the lack of a just and open dialogue which accounts for the perspectives of all parties concerned, means that the Santa Rosa land conflict is not resolved. Instead, a conflict of power and interest continues, because of the opposition of the dominated parties to the prevailing discourse. Marx argues that oppression can only be removed through forceful opposition against the power and force of the oppressors. Thus, the Mapuche may throw stones at the police, when they forcefully remove them from the Santa Rosa land. However, the Mapuche also use state institutions, such as the legal system, to undermine the state’s dominant discourse. For example, when a judge visited Rosa and Atilio´s hut in Santa Rosa in 2008, he opposed Benetton’s spurious declaration that they were breaking the law by making ‘irreversible changes’ to the land – land which in fact they and their ancestors spiritually respected.
Therefore the question is, how can different perspectives and rights be reconciled and accounted for so that land conflicts can be resolved? One way is by adhering to a legal system which accounts for diverging perspectives. Thus, national Argentinean laws exist that recognize the rights of people and companies to buy, sell and own land. Yet such activities are kept in check by laws that state indigenous communities have a right to live and occupy the land of their ancestors, which is now owned by the state. However, to uphold a dialogue of reconciliation and justice, such laws are not sufficient, as often dominant actors do not adhere to them. For example, despite the existence of such laws, the Mapuche community continues to be discriminated against. As a final example, Benetton does not adhere to Argentinean laws as the company has not legally delineated the land that they own from the land that is owned by the state for the Mapuche, so that they can incrementally increase their holdings and prevent the Mapuche from living there.
In turn, it is necessary that the international community, working through organizations such as Cultural Survival and Amnesty International, to make sure that such laws are upheld in the country, through imposing economic or political sanctions if the government defaults. Furthermore, wider international connections are needed, for by uniting with victims of other land conflicts, the Mapuche will gain greater global advocacy and support. In this way a more just dialogue can emerge that accounts for both difference and reconciliation.