Magazine article New Internationalist

The Privatization of Patagonia

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Privatization of Patagonia

Article excerpt

'If we don't stop this Intrusion we will live In exile In our own land,' says Adolfo Pérez Bsquhrel, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize In 198O for his struggle to defend human rights In Argentina. He is now worried about the impact on the country's indigenous peoples of massive sales of land in Patagonia.

His fears are well founded. In the 1990s Argentina privatized almost every public asset and became the International Monetary Fund's model student. Now investors have started to diversify, buying thousands of hectares of land that contain not only natiye peoples' memory and ancient woodlands but also lakes and rivers with some of the purest water on the planet.

In the last 15 years, clothing magnate Luciano Benetton has bought 900,000 hectares - equivalent to half the area of Wales. CNN's Ted Turner was more modest and acquired a mere 55,000 hectares. Joseph Lewis, based in Barbados, was satisfied with even less: 14,000 hectares. Douglas Tompkins, founder of the North Face apparel company and a self-proclaimed 'environmentalist', got 800,000 hectares in Chile and Argentina. Some of his lands surround the largest freshwater river in Patagonia.

El Bolsón, a town that used to be the destination of choice for Argentinean hippies, has become a place where young backpackers drink mate in the handicraft fair while dozens of real-estate agents and financial advisors offer uninhabited, virgin lands and exclusive access to green and blue lakes.

'The land was given away as a gift,' says Marta Maffei, an opposition leader and the former Vice-President of the Parliamentary Committee for Natural Resources and Human Environment Conservation. 'The State was auctioned off, while national companies and lands were sold at a bargain price. Our country has extremely flexible laws and inefficient government control. Some economic groups have got enormous properties for nothing. They have come here to do easy business.'

For the Spanish conquerors, South America ended at the Patagonian border. Travelling in this region, the homeland of indigenous peoples, was considered dangerous. Even after independence the southern frontier was almost impassable. 'The Indian problem,' as it was called by the estanciero (rancher) oligarchy that dominated politics from Buenos Aires, was one of the few obstacles to building the European-style state they had in mind.

In 1878 General julio Roca, using British money and an army equipped with Remington repeating rifles, headed for Patagonia in what was euphemistically called the 'Conquest of the Desert'. The indigenous peoples, ancestral inhabitants of this 'desert', could not resist Roca's army and were forced to retreat. Many died. In 1882 the Argentinean Embassies in Paris-and London duly began to sell new estancias as large as 40,000 hectares.

That was the first privatization of Patagonia - it was not to be the last. Until 1989, when Carlos Menem became President, the Government had some degree of control. Since then official policy has been to welcome foreign investment of any kind as the best means of achieving economic development. The extranjerización ('foreignization') of land accelerated at a dizzy pace.

'In Argentina there is no property register of fiscal [public] land,' warns Pérez Esquivel. The boundaries between private and public property are 'wire fences that walk, fences that estancleros put up wherever they want, and say: "This is mine. Period!"'

Following the 2001 economic collapse, the 300-per-cent devaluation of the currency and the bankruptcy of thousands of small landowners that followed, the price of land in Argentina fell sharply. Foreign investors were quick to take advantage of one of the weakest land regimes in Latin America.

According to the Constitution, indigenous peoples are the legitimate owners of the southern, lands where their ancestors were born. 'There is sort of an unwritten law that says property rights are above all other rights,' comments Maffei. …

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