Members of the Mapuche Ancestral Resistance, an organization that fights for the rights of the indigenous Mapuche community, this morning burned two excavator machines belonging to English businessman Joe Lewis in Río Negro Province. The machines were laying down power lines between a hydroelectric plant owned by Lewis and the city of El Bolsón.
According to Rionegro.com, police found leaflets signed by the resistance group demanding the following:
- The release of group member Facundo Jones Huala who was arrested in May following an international capture request from Chile, where a warrant was issued for his arrest after he occupied land the Mapuche claim as their own.
- The eviction of oil, mining and hydroelectric companies from Patagonia.
- And end to the repression of Mapuche communities.
Joseph “Joe” Lewis is a 79-year-old British businessman whose net worth is estimated at US $5.3 billion, placing him among the 300 richest people on the planet, according to Forbes magazine. Among his different ventures in Argentina, he is the largest stock owner of electricity-supplying company Edenor.
Between 1996 and 1997, Lewis bought a 12,000-hectare plot of land in Patagonia, less than 45 kilometers away from the city of El Bolsón, in Río Negro Province. Although he is not the first millionaire from abroad to acquire massive amounts of land in the country, his case was especially controversial because his land purchase included the Lago Escondido (“Hidden Lake”), widely considered one of the country’s most beautiful landmarks.
Following the purchase, Lewis ordered the public access road to Lago Escondido be closed, sparking a feud with Argentines in general, but specially with El Bolsón residents and Mapuche indigenous groups. Both groups had different claims and took different approaches to get what they wanted.
El Bolsón residents demand that Lewis re-open the public access road — called “sendero Tacuifi” — so that they may use the lake again. Ever since he arrived, citizens and numerous NGOs staged public protests, presented formal accusations against him and organized music festivals to “defend the right of free shores and against the concentration of land among foreigners.”
The judiciary listened to these demands and ruled in 2009, 2012 and 2013 that the road should be re-opened. However, Lewis never complied with these orders. Moreover, former Provincial Governor Carlos Soria had promised to have a bulldozer take down the wire fence preventing the access, but never followed through. His successor, Alberto Weretilnek, didn’t make any progress either, but people from El Bolsón aren’t giving up: A month ago, a group of citizens showed up at the Tacuifil road again. However, they were forced to retreat when they were “greeted” by armed security personnel working for Lewis.
The Mapuche indigenous community’s claim to the lake is a bit more comprehensive: the lake lies within what the Mapuche consider to be their ancestral land.
As a result, certain Mapuche groups have taken action to recover the land. The Mapuche Ancestral Resistance group has already been accused of setting a mountain shelter on fire and attacking a truck driver for, in their words, “delivering goods to the rich people who own” the plots of land their consider theirs.
La Vaca outlet reported in May that police violently evicted a group of Mapuches who had settled on land belonging to the Benetton family, the largest foreign private owner of land in the country with 1.5 million hectares: “They dragged away women and children and took them away in cars without license plates,” Martiniano Jones Huala, a spokesperson for the Mapuche group, told La Vaca.
Mapuches argue the Argentine government has been handing over their land to foreigners ever since the country annexed the Patagonia region in the so-called conquista del desierto (“conquest of the desert”) in the late 19th century. The “conquest” under then President Julio Argentino Roca killed thousands of indigenous groups who lived there.
In 1896, Roca donated 900,000 hectares to the British company Argentine Southern Land so it could develop a railroad to improve the country’s export system. In 1982, the company translated its name to the Spanish Compañía del Sud Argentino and staffed its board with 60 percent Argentines. But the company was acquired by the Bennetton family in 1991 for US $50 million, who’ve owned the land ever since.
According to National Senator Magdalena Odara, the “national register of rural land revealed that 6 percent of our country’s land is owned by foreigners. However, this data is an average, since there are regions like Ituzaingó, in Corrientes Province, which are half owned by foreigners. 21 percent of Bariloche is owned by foreigners.”