Photo from Que Pasa Salta

International Human Rights Organization, Amnesty International, has called for urgent action in relation to three indigenous men from the Wichí community in Argentina’s northern region whose right to a fair trial they claim is being violated.

On March 20th, three Wichí men from the isolated district of Rivadavia Banda Sur in the province of Salta will face a court trial for alleged illegal seizing of land, intimidation and property damage.

The charges relate to an incident that occurred in 2014 when the three Wichí men, Martín Acosta, Dalmacio Acosta and Demetrio Campos, resisted a landowner’s attempt to erect a fence on land that the Wichí claim belongs to them collectively.  The Wichí say that the fence – which would have cut through land they included in a national indigenous land title survey carried out under Law 26.160 –  would have impeded their access to traditional hunting, fishing and firewood collection spots, thereby threatening their very subsistence.

The incident was reported to police and the men were assigned a public defendant. However, the men report that they have never received word from their lawyer, let alone an explanation of the charges against them or legal advice. Moreover, they claim the legal documents have not been translated into Wichí, which means that two of the three men cannot fully understand them.

Amnesty warns that “for this reason, they find themselves facing trial without an effective defense and with the risk of being found guilty for said acts.” They have organized a petition urgently requesting that local authorities ensure that the men’s right to a fair trial is ensured.

The Wichí are one of the most marginalized people in Argentina. Many of the communities living around Rivadavia Banda Sur do not have access to clean water, electricity, safe housing or hospitals, and during the wet season they are often cut off from the main town for months at a time.

"We have lived off hunting, collecting and fishing for many centuries, and we will continue to do so!" Image from Wichi Lhayis Rivadavia Facebook Page.
“We have lived off hunting, collecting and fishing for many centuries, and we will continue to do so!” Image from Wichi Lhayis Rivadavia Facebook Page.

In this context, free passage over the land that they and their ancestors hunted, fished and collected on is not just key to their cultural identity, it is necessary to their very survival. 

The Wichí also argue that they have a legal claim to the land. In 2006, the Argentine government passed “emergency” legislation to determine which land belonged collectively to indigenous people, in part as historical reparations owing to state violence towards Argentina’s first inhabitants. The community living in the area of Palmar – where the landowner attempted to erect the fence – assures that they obtained status as a legal entity under the legislation and included the territory in the survey.