April 24, 2017, wasn’t a typical day in Viedma, Argentina. For starters, police were stationed outside the provincial government’s office, and the building’s door was blocked off with police tape. The biggest clue, however, may have been the crowd of some 500 indigenous people arriving at the building at the end of a four-day journey from over 500 miles away. Their message, emblazoned on a banner at the head of the caravan, was simple: “We are alive; that’s why we march.”
The marchers, members of the indigenous Mapuche community, were protesting a piece of legislation still being debated by the Río Negro state government. The Fiscal Land Code, introduced last July by Río Negro’s governor, Alberto Weretilneck, allows the state government to seize land—even indigenous land—for private development related to mining, fracking, tourism, and real estate. It seems to violate provisions in the Argentine Constitution that protect indigenous people’s land rights (although provincial officials insist otherwise).
Jesica Millalonco of Nawel Wapy Ngeiñ, the Mapuche’s communication team, told The Nation that the march began after a series of meetings among the Mapuche in different parts of Río Negro over the past six months. After much discussion, they decided to march to Viedma to protest the law, “which the provincial government is pushing.” Millalonco explained that under the Fiscal Land Code, the government can take control of up to 5 million acres—or 90 percent—of their lands, without any regard for the environment or the Mapuche’s rights.
“The Fiscal Land Code modifies the use of our lands [and] opens the door for further destruction,” Millalonco said.
For the Mapuche, the land in question isn’t just territory. The area endangered by the Fiscal Land Code is inextricably linked to their culture, customs, and way of life—the word “Mapuche” itself means “people of the land.” The Mapuche live mostly within the borders of Chile and Argentina and speak Mapudungun, although it is not recognized as a national language by either country. For centuries, they have been the target of discrimination, their lands seized by the Chilean and Argentine governments, which sought to profit from their natural resources.