(Human Extinction series)
(Wichi Girls in Northwest Argentina)
Food is something that most of us in the modern world don't really have to think about. It is always there. Driving down the street, we are bombarded with ads and plenty of places offering up one form of it or another. Here in America we can eat a hamburger and fries for lunch and then turn around and have curry or stir-fry for dinner. Pot roasts and baked potatoes are the hallmarks of a Sunday meal for many here. For others it is fried chicken and mashed potatoes that really drives home that comfort of a nice hot meal. But one thing never crosses our mind when we are chowing down on those meals that, for us at least, come far too easily... and that is where the food is coming from.
For the developing world the question of where that next meal is coming from is one that may very well not have an answer. The growling of children's stomachs does not get greeted with a snack to subdue the hunger. Milk or juice aren't available for their children as their parents struggle to find even the basic foods upon which they will survive. For the Wichi people of Argentina, this is a reality that refuses to be resolved.
Watching The Land Die
For thousands of years the Wichi people lived upon the grasslands and in the forests that once dominated their homeland in northwest Argentina and southwest Bolivia. There they had managed to form a bond with the land that allowed them to find food where the colonial powers found none. Early Christian missionaries said that the Wichi were semi-nomadic and moved with the changing of the seasons. They hunted in the tall grasslands when the native animals migrated through their homeland. They celebrated the ripening of the algarroba fruit in their forests. And fished the rivers that flowed through their homeland.
Yet all of this changed with the arrival of those early European missionaries. Native languages, cultures, foods, and religions were all seen as the primitive (and often depicted as barbaric) pre-Christian world. The Wichi were expected to settle down in the villages the Europeans designated for them. The missions were to be their new central government. Spanish was to be their new language.
Over the next hundred years the Wichi would suffer disease, famine, and all other forms of suffering brought upon by colonization. One of the most devastating forms of oppression was the application of the Spanish's version of faith. Catholicism had decided that it was their mission to eradicate the spirit of the native while leaving the empty shell of a man behind. Once this was complete the missionaries could fill their new vessels with the religion of Spain. The indigenous spirit was thus on the cutting block as Spain fought to subdue South America in every way.
With the downfall of Spanish power came the rule of those who had stepped up to fill the power vacuum left behind. For the Wichi this meant little except that their oppressors changed from a tyrant across the sea to tyrants who viewed all of Argentina as theirs. The 20th century brought forth modernization. And with the rise of a nation came the worst cases of starvation the Wichi have ever faced.
Over the last hundred years the government of Argentina has carved up the Wichi homeland. The Salta state government has refused to recognize the Wichi peoples' needs as it has allowed their lands to be sold off acre by acre. The modernization of Argentina has meant that large chunks of Wichi lands have been handed over to plantations and cattle ranchers. The forests that the Wichi had survived upon were handed over to loggers and developers. The result of all this "progress" has been the desertification of what had once been grasslands and forested acres.
The Wichi have attempted to tell the world and Argentina that their lands are dying. The animals their ancestors had hunted are almost all gone now. The fruiting trees of the forests have been targeted for their wood rather than their fruits by Argentina's loggers. The rivers in which they fished are being dammed up by Argentina's developers. The grasslands are either being turned to soya plantations or turning to desert from shrinking rivers and disappearing streams. The Wichi have tried to tell the world that their land is dying. But nobody is listening.
Argentina's croplands have become a noose around the necks of the Wichi people. They were once isolated by geography. Now the Wichi are isolated from the outside world by the Argentine food industry. They are suffering from hunger as Argentina grows crops for export on all sides of their lands. This has been made achievable by Argentina's national and local governments by a policy of denying the Wichi people the titles to their own lands. By denying any ownership of the land itself, Argentina has usurped the very homeland of an entire people. This has left the Wichi with the scraps that Argentina could not use or did not want.
In the United States this very tactic was used against the tribes of North America. As the white settlers spread westward under a policy of "manifest destiny" the native peoples were pushed off their homeland. Native Americans were soon redirected to patches of land that white settlers found unfavorable. These tiny scraps were defined by the United States government as "Indian Reservations". In all reality, these were large open-air concentration camps.
Argentina has achieved the creation of "Indian Reservations" by writing and interpreting laws that permit businesses and ranchers the right to claim Wichi lands that are found to be favorable. No attention has been paid to the devastating results of deforestation and ranching in the area. Argentina has given no attention to the spreading desertification and famine in Wichi areas. The government only has taken notice as the changing landscape has turned Argentine held lands into sand. Their abuse of the delicate ecosystem is only recognized when the occupying population is affected.
Yet the growing effects of desertification has not forced Argentina to deal with the problems it's gluttony caused. Instead of allowing the original caretakers of the land to have possession of it, Argentina has dug in it's heels. Non-native Argentine citizens have laid claim to the few fertile plots of land left. They assault and threaten Wichi men they find hunting in the few areas where game animals can be found. They threaten, physically and sexually, Wichi women who are found gathering wild fruits in the few plots of forests left. And they impose systematic forms of segregation that the government refuses to combat.
While non-native Argentine citizens are becoming poorer from the results of their abuse of the land, they aren't the ones truly suffering. Wichi people are unable to gain an equal foothold in Argentina's weak economy. Wichi are not permitted equal representation in local and federal government. They are not given access to the same systems of commerce and trade that non-native settlers in their homeland are given. What little bit of their land they are left with is still under threat. And the food it provides is far from enough to sustain the 20-50 thousand Wichi that survive there.
Argentina's desire to keep it's food exports strong has left government incompetent in protecting native culture and society. Local government has refused the Wichi villages even the basic accommodations of modern society (proper sewage for example) as it pushes modernization upon the Wichi people. The closest local government comes to protecting Wichi culture is it's exploitation of Wichi crafts and traditions when tourism opportunities present themselves. This of course plays into the overall exploitation of the Wichi that Argentina's government has become accustomed to.
In the United States the end goal of manifest destiny, as a policy of expansionism, was the eradication of native culture. If the Native Americans were to be brought into the ranks of American society they would first have to assimilate to white society as a whole. After seeing entire tribes eradicated, this form of cultural extinction was preferable to "civil society". It was often viewed as "bringing the Indian into the modern age". This allowed America to believe that their "progress" was not killing a people but rather bestowing a perverse form of enlightenment upon them.
Argentina's Wichi people may not be at a point where their entire race is at risk of extinction anymore, but their culture is. They are expected to live the same lifestyle as the settlers who have confiscated their lands. They are expected to alter their version of Protestant Christianity to match that of the rest of Argentina. Their language is not encouraged by the government or society at large. And their foods are looked down upon as second class in much the same way as they themselves are.
With all the hallmarks of their culture under threat it is hard to look toward a brighter future for the children of the Wichi people. With starvation a real problem (in 2011 multiple Wichi children died from malnutrition) the Wichi people can not look toward the future and see a real source of hope laying ahead of them. If their lands are to be taken from them, their culture denied to them, and their children treated as second class citizens... what do the Wichi have left?
Assimilation is not a source of hope but rather is a dehumanizing form of subjugation. Even if the Wichi were to abandon every part of their culture and take upon the characterless modern world's... they are still second class citizens in their own homeland. This is the plight of a people facing the death of their identity as a people. And yet it is also in this, their resistance to Argentina's version of manifest destiny, that the world can see the Wichi peoples' resilience.
(note: not all are listed)
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