Accord Puts End to Indigenous Hunger Strike.

After a 32-day hunger strike in the headquarters of the provincial government of Chaco, in northeastern Argentina, a group of indigenous activists reached an agreement Tuesday with government officials and called off their fast.

But they warn that their campaign for their right to land has just begun.

"We are very pleased with this agreement, which was achieved without any casualties," said the president of the Chaco Institute for Indigenous Affairs (IDACH), Orlando Charole, after signing the accord.

He added, however, that "this struggle is a long one, and is just starting," and described the agreement as "merely a truce."

"Governor Roy Nikisch, who didn't want to sign the document, is forewarned," said Charole in a press conference Tuesday. "The indigenous people will not flinch at resorting to even stronger direct action tactics if any of the points agreed on goes unmet."

The nine hunger strikers who began to fast on Jul. 21 issued a communiqué in which they said they were happy that "the dead letter of the law has been resuscitated today" and that "a new era in the history of the indigenous nations of the Chaco is beginning."

The fasters want to return to their local communities as soon as possible. However, the doctors who have been attending them recommended that they remain in observation in the hospital for a few days in Resistencia, the provincial capital located 700 km north of Buenos Aires.

The indigenous activists held their hunger strike in a windowless hearing room on the fourth floor of the government building, sleeping on the floor or on the table and chairs. They were under permanent police custody, and only left the room to go to the bathroom or visit the central hall to talk to journalists or social activists.

On Aug. 7, one of the strikers was hospitalised, and was advised by the doctors to drop out of the fast.

Two other hunger strikers quit in mid-August as a goodwill gesture when the provincial government finally agreed to talks.

One of the government officials who played a key role in the talks, provincial Minister Hugo Matkovich, praised the "willingness to engage in dialogue" that ultimately led to Tuesday's agreement.

The minister said "an effort was made to get down on paper all of the issues of concern to the indigenous people," and a commitment was made "to continue working on each of the agreed-on points."

With respect to the questions that are most difficult to resolve in the short-term, like complaints of irregular distribution of public land over the past decade, or demands for the resignation of a mayor accused of discriminating against indigenous people, Matkovich admitted that "where there are doubts, it will be the justice system that will decide how to move forward."

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC), there are some 400,000 indigenous people in Argentina, belonging to 20 different ethnic groups. Chaco, the country's poorest province, is home to 60,000 Toba, Mocoví and Wichí Indians..

While the national poverty rate was 40 percent in 2005, it stood at 65 percent in Chaco. And it is indigenous people who bear the brunt of poverty, according to social organisations.

In a conversation with IPS, IDACH lawyer Walter Zanuttini explained that the authorities agreed to grant a number of plots of land to indigenous communities and small farmers. In addition, indigenous people obtained a promise of title deeds to land that they already live on, as well as an agreement to officially register bilingual teachers.

A larger budget for IDACH -- an autonomous government agency whose president is elected by the local indigenous communities -- was also agreed.

Through the accord, added to the support that was already promised by the national government, IDACH will obtain an additional 1.3 million dollars to go towards farm equipment and inputs for indigenous farmers and building materials for housing in indigenous communities, said Zanuttini.

"People are very satisfied with this. It was the biggest indigenous protest in the history of Chaco, and there is a lot of enthusiasm over the result," he added.

With regard to the land that has been improperly distributed, estimated at more than three million hectares, the lawyer said "there will be new developments" in the prosecutions based on corruption charges.

The conflict began in May, when a group of indigenous people marched to Resistencia to protest the irregular distribution of public land to private owners, which has been going on for over a decade.

Under provincial law, the land was to be granted to indigenous communities or indigenous and non-indigenous small farmers, along with development aid. But that did not occur.

According to the non-governmental Nelson Mandela Studies Centre, the provincial Colonisation Institute -- the government agency in charge of distributing the land in question -- sold it to private interests at ridiculously low prices, and in plots that far exceeded the legal size limits. Some of the property was then resold at a profit to large landowners.

The communities also protested the government's inadequate financial support for IDACH, and demanded the resignation of Lorenzo Heffner, mayor of the town of Villa Bermejito, who faces legal charges of discriminating against indigenous residents.

But Governor Nikisch, of the Radical Civic Union (UCR) party, refused to meet with the indigenous representatives on the argument that the conflict had been fomented by the national government of centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, who belongs to the Justicialista (Peronist) Party.

The indigenous protesters, who numbered up to 1,000 at one point, set up camp outside the provincial government building. Camp was finally struck on Tuesday, after the agreement was reached, and the demonstrators prepared to return to their villages after three months away from home.

[Source: By Marcela Valente, IPS, Buenos Aires, 23aug06]

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