Félix Díaz stands before a line of colourful plastic tents on one of the broad strips of land running down the centre of the Avenida 9 de Julio – one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Argentinian capital.
“We have many gods,” he says. “The god of nature, the god of water, the god of air, but we no longer have the land we shared with them. They’ve taken our gods and now they’re taking what little is left of our land.”
Díaz, the chieftain of the Qom indigenous tribe, is leading the fight for the return of his people’s ancestral lands in the distant northern province of Formosa. Together with representatives of the Pilagá, Wichi and Nivaclé indigenous communities, the Qom activists have for the past five months camped out in central Buenos Aires to demand the return of their traditional territories.
But his words are drowned out by the thunderous din of traffic – and his message has been actively ignored by government officials.
Díaz is attempting to change that narrative by making visible the displaced indigenous minority and reaffirming their rights – and their claims to lost territory.
“Argentina’s indigenous people suffer racism, discrimination and violence,” says Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who survived 14 months of torture and incarceration during the country’s 1976-83 military dictatorship and is now leading a campaign for official recognition of indigenous leaders such as Díaz.
Far from responding to their demands, however, Argentina’s government has responded by sending in the police. Riot police in armoured vehicles launched a 3am raid in a failed attempt to evict the protest camp.
The attempted eviction was halted after the news went viral on social media. “We’re not murderers, we’re not delinquents, we’re not corrupt,” said Díaz. “We just want our human rights respected and to be received by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.”
Fernández has cast herself as a defender of human rights, throwing her political weight behind the trials against military officials of the dictatorship era, but her government has consistently disregarded the rights claimed by indigenous leaders such as Díaz.
“The government talks about human rights during the time of the dictatorship while it violates the rights of the indigenous people today,” says Pérez Esquivel.
Pérez Esquivel has the ear of a powerful ally: the former bishop of Buenos Aires. In 2013, he arranged a meeting between Díaz and Pope Francis at the Vatican, and a striking photograph of the meeting between two white-clad leaders made front pages across Argentina. But even that media coup has failed to shake apparent public indifference to indigenous rights.
That is why in February Díaz brought his protest from Formosa, a steamy, subtropical poverty-stricken province, to this makeshift protest camp in bustling Buenos Aires.
After five months, the plastic tents are looking ragged, the white plastic chairs are soiled and the modular toilets standing in the middle of the avenue look out of place. Few people stop to express solidarity. Two small girls run barefoot perilously close to the curb as oblivious motorists speed by.
Part of the problem is that Fernández refuses to recognize the results of a government-sponsored 2011 vote in which the 50,000-strong Qom community elected Díaz as its representative to negotiate the land question.
Díaz defeated his opponent in an 80% landslide. But Fernández dismisses Díaz outright. “The Qom don’t live in press conferences; they don’t live on 9 de Julio avenue,” she said two years ago regarding a previous protest on the same spot. “They live in Formosa.”
Díaz counters: “In 2007 the government took away 2042 hectares [about 5,000 acres] of our ancestral lands,” counters Díaz. “Since then, it has ignored all our
“Losing land for us is like losing a body organ,” he says. “It means death
to us if we don’t have our land for physical and spiritual nourishment, for our ancestral medicine.”
Argentina’s last population census in 2010 registered nearly 1 million people – about 2.38% of the total population of over 40 million – who consider themselves direct descendants of the nation’s indigenous inhabitants.
But the overall genetic makeup of Argentinians is more mixed than was once believed. “The ancestry information markers we carry in our blood show that genetically Argentinians are about 70% European, 20% indigenous and 5% African,” says Daniel Corach, director of the service of genetic digital tracing at the University of Buenos Aires, who reached that conclusion based on wide-ranging DNA testing throughout Argentina.
But in the country’s northern regions, some communities have less mixed ancestry, says Corach. Among the groups with the least European blood are the Wichi and Qom communities in Formosa. “There are over 30 native languages still spoken in Argentina today. And the economically dominant economic groups continue to displace those people even now, especially with the advent of extensive soy plantations, which have forced those native populations to resettle in urban areas,” he said.
The Qom people fiercely resisted Spanish colonial encroachment and attempts to convert them to Christianity. But their ecosystem was devastated when the province of Formosa came under Argentinian rule in 1876 after a war with neighbouring Paraguay.
That ecosystem was destroyed by exploitation of the native quebracho tree, known for its tanin and its hard timber. And when the new white landowners turned to cotton production, the Qom people became the cheap seasonal workforce.
Since the 1990s their situation has only deteriorated further. Industrial-style soy cultivation has accelerated deforestation. Communities have lost their lands to agribusiness and suffer health problems from fertilizers, pesticides and water poisoning.
Father Francisco Nazar, a priest who left Buenos Aires to work amongst the Qom and the Wichi peoples in Formosa 44 years ago, sees Díaz as Argentina’s best hope for coming to terms with the existence of its indigenous communities. “He’s imbued with the culture and spirituality of his ancestors, combined with a total belief in non-violence. He is a great man against very powerful enemies.”
According to Pérez Esquivel, the situation facing Argentina’s indigenous people is dire. “They are the object of systematic persecution while their lands are handed over to big international firms for mining, oil, gold, strategic minerals, fracking. They’re being driven out of their territories. They live like exiles in their own land.”
Although Díaz and Pérez Esquivel continue pressing for a presidential response, they are not optimistic. “I don’t think the president is going to change on this. It’s a political decision,” says Pérez Esquivel.
Díaz adds: “They’re killing us with indifference.”