Plight of the Argentine Indigenous
A while back, I had the opportunity to work with the Pay it Forward Project (PIFP) a non-profit organization that was established in August of 2006 by an Argentine living outside Washington D.C. to assist in rebuilding the lives, self worth, and spirit of individuals living in developing nations. The PIFP works in countries that have fallen victim to natural disasters providing assistance so that people can pursue gainful livelihood following such crisis. The PIFP uses donations to provide sewing machines in furtherance of this goal while also addressing needs associated with clothing, food, and adequate housing.
On this trip the PIFP was working on such a project in the “Las Lomas” neighborhood of Santa Fe, Argentina with an indigenous group of people known as the Toba. The 133 families of this community were part of a larger group of over 70,000 people who were temporarily displaced during recent flooding in April of this year. Their economic survival depends heavily on the success of this project and the need for financial assistance is great.
The Toba, sometimes referred to as the Toba-Pilagá, are an indigenous group that originally inhabited the Gran Chaco area of Argentina. The Toba are a traditional, nomadic people that up until the 1930’s were a hunter-gatherer group. Economic activity was seasonally dependent with the men traditionally bringing meat, fish, and honey into the community while the women provided fruit, vegetables, wood, and water. The women were also charged with maintaining the household and tending the children.
In 1875 a campaign known as the “Conquest of the Desert” was initiated by Argentinean General, and later President, Julio Roca to pacify the Argentinean indigenous peoples and take over their native lands (to see him just pull out one of your hundred pesos notes). Although groups like the Toba fought back, this military campaign made way for the influx of colonists, missionaries and cattle ranchers that settled on traditional Toba land. This settlement by foreigners severely affected the mobility of these nomadic people and eventually led to difficulty in making a living from the land. This situation was worsened with the introduction of agriculture by Anglican missionaries in the 1930’s.
An additional goal of the “Conquest of the Desert” campaign was to organize surviving indigenous people such as the Toba into a cheap labor force for timber companies and sugar plantations. The Toba were ripe for such exploitation by the 1930’s as a lack of mobility and increasing dependence on foreign goods created a need for seasonal agricultural work. Unable to hunt for extended periods, the Toba eventually settled into communities and outside agricultural work replaced traditional tribal economic activity.
Urban Toba settlements began to appear in the 1950’s in cities such as Resistencia, Rosario, Santa Fe, and even Buenos Aires. Those communities lay on the periphery of those cities and were locally referred to as villa miseries, or miserable villages, due to their high level of poverty. Unprecedented flooding beginning in the 1980’s and mechanization in the 1990’s left many Toba unemployed and in 1996 any Toba willing to migrate to the Santa Fe Province were bought one-way tickets by the Gran Chaco provincial government. In 2001 a survey undertaken of households with at least one member recognizing indigenous ancestry showed that only about 1,516 Toba individuals followed a traditional lifestyle and community. In 2004 a complimentary survey taken (with involvement in design and data gathering by indigenous people) indicated an overall estimated Toba population of 47,591 individuals.
Today the economic practices of the Toba population of Santa Fe, as in other cities, are subsistence oriented with both men and women engaged in trying to find a way to make a living. The relation of these people to the land was once central to the provision of food, medicine and housing as well as to the preservation of their spiritual and social lives. The Toba Community of Santa Fe lacks any land, thus cultivation is unavailable and virtually all the inhabitants participate in the mainstream economy. The cacique, or community leader of this group, Carlos, related to a PIFP member that: “We have no land to plant on. Precisely because of this, there is misery and hunger in our land… We are driven to suicide because we don’t mean anything”.
Although work opportunities are greater in these urban environments than they are in Gran Chaco, most jobs are low paying, require no specialized skills, and provide little job security. In this setting the Toba are marginalized and discriminated against for being indigenous. In spite of this fact, they remain an easily exploited source of cheap labor to the benefit of the general populace of Santa Fe. Additionally the Toba community has a number of goals that must be realized prior to attaining economic, social and cultural rights taken for granted by other citizens. Of particular note are the areas of education, employment, health and housing.
It is in this cultural and economic climate that the PIFP recently began its work co-jointly with the leadership council of the Toba of Santa Fe. While this group has brought all the resources necessary for initiating the project, additional funds and resources are necessary to see this project actualize its full potential. Currently the project includes plans to create an industry based on the design and manufacture of clothing utilizing traditional Toba design in the style itself and fabric patterns. The use of Toba artisans in the manufacture of accessories such as handmade wooden buttons is also being studied. The PIFP is also working on the creation of training shops to assist the women in learning the design and manufacture of that clothing, and to teach them effective marketing strategies. The initial purchase of machinery as well as planning for this project has been achieved, but there is much yet to be accomplished.
The economic, cultural, and social survival of the Toba depends heavily on the success of this project and the need for outside assistance is great. Enhanced self -sustainability is the long range goal of this program and the Toba leadership council believes this project is a good beginning. Additionally it is the desire of this community to continue to be identified as “indigenous” which implies many things.
- Indigenous people have a longstanding relationship to the land on which they once lived that predates colonization and the formation of the contemporary state.
- Indigenous people wish to preserve, continue to develop, and pass along to future generations distinct knowledge systems, practices and ways of living that are intimately connected to this land.
- Except in a few rare cases, the socio-economic institutions of the countries in which indigenous peoples live are largely shaped and controlled by other ethnic groups that have come into positions of dominance through this process of colonization and development of the current systems of government.
- Indigenous peoples actively seek the recognition of their rights as individuals and as a people on their own terms and in accordance with their own traditions.
The road ahead will prove to be a long one and hopefully one that can realize this dream.
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