The Argentinean province of Formosa is firmly off the tourist radar. One of the poorest parts of the country, it stretches along the sub-tropical northern border with Paraguay, over a thousand kilometres from the capital.
Reports from the rural outback in Argentina are rare in a media environment dominated by Buenos Aires-based newspapers and TV channels. Recently, however, Formosa was suddenly in the news after clashes between police and indigenous Qom inhabitants left two people dead.
Officers had begun forcibly removing protesters from a national highway they’d been blocking. The campaigners had been trying to bring attention to an ancestral land rights claim, in an area the province was planning to develop into a university study centre. Gabriela Boada of Amnesty International Argentina said: “It’s shameful. The indigenous population are peacefully demanding rights that have been historically denied. They [the police] want to shut them up and punish them.”
Before last week, the story had been largely met with indifference from the national media. The Qom had actually been blocking the RN-86 for four months, but it took gunshots and two deaths to cause a stir. Even now, most international media outlets haven’t touched the story.
A similar situation recently unfurled in Chile. Leading up to the country’s bicentenary celebrations in September, 32 Mapuche prisoners – many of them behind bars for violent clashes over land rights disputes – went on hunger strike, protesting against legislation dating back to the Pinochet era that saw them tried under controversial anti-terror legislation in a military court.
“The media coverage of the Mapuche prisoners was an interesting thing to watch unfold,” says Ryan Seelau, a human rights lawyer based in Santiago, who runs the indigneousnews.org website. “The strike lasted in total slightly over 80 days. Yet for the first 50 days, the Chilean media said almost nothing about it at all.”
Although President Piñera did eventually listen to Mapuche grievances and amend legislation, it’s been hard for indigenous communities to push their concerns up the political and media agenda. Whilst in Formosa the protest was genuinely peaceful, in Chile a small number have used violence as a means to an end. The media indifference may well be down to a lack of understanding of the complexities of the situation, while aggression gives people reasons to dismiss indigenous actions as extremist behaviour.
Ongoing land rights issues – present in every South American country with indigenous populations – throws two ways of life, with very different value systems, into sharp contrast. “Conflict [is] rooted in the underlying theoretical concepts of what lands and territories are, what types of activities give rise to property rights and whether those rights are individual or communal,” Seelau explains. Only by each side coming half way can there be any hope for an end to the disputes.