An ancient people descended from the Incas fights to save its land and way of life.
The Kollas are a group of indigenous peoples living in the valleys, foothills and high planes of the Andes Mountains of northwestern Argentina. With more than 130,000 members, they are the largest aboriginal nation in Argentina, where 350,000 indigenous people make up I per cent of the total population. The Kolias are descendants of the Incas, Aymara and other local indigenous peoples, and their territory formerly made up the southern-most part of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca empire.
About 350 Kolla families live in the Finca San Andres (finca is Spanish for ranch or farm), whose 129,000 hectares are crisscrossed by several rivers and range from a hot and humid rainforest near sea level to high-altitude passes at 4,500 metres. Here they grow corn and potatoes, and keep herds of cattle and sheep.
Most Kollas are Catholics and also honour the Pachamama, the Mother Earth which was the principle Incan deity. But the land and way of life that have sustained the Kollas since time immemorial are under attack. Since their first encounter with Spanish invaders in 1535, they haven’t had much rest from the outsiders who wanted to enslave them, exploit their labour, take their land and push them aside.
An international business consortium has just bulldozed a path through their forests, over their rivers and mountains, to make way for a controversial natural-gas pipeline. Their fragile land is also threatened by tourism operators. But each step of the way, the Kollas have resisted, and they continue to resist.
Like their forefathers, many Kolla families still practice a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In the spring, when the heat, poisonous snakes and insects drive the cattle up to higher altitudes, they follow their animals from lower-lying winter villages to higher-up summer settlements. In April and May (the seasons are opposite to ours because they are located south of the equator), when cold winds blow across the few remaining pastures, they come down again.
Kolla woman during protest march to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.
in long tracks of up to 10 horses loaded with household items, the summer harvest and chicken.
The houses have no electricity or running water, although after a devastating cholera epidemic in 1992, the provincial government promised to install drinking water and might be making good on this promise in the near future.
There are four communities in the finca: Angosto de Parani, Rio Blanquito de Santa Cruz, Los Naranjos and San Andres, ranging from 200 to 450 inhabitants. Each village has a primary school which all children attend until Grade 7. Once finished, many youngsters leave to go to secondary school, and quite a few don’t return. They usually go to the nearby town of Oran, located about 70 kilometres to the east along an earth road that turns in to slippery mud whenever it rains.
During the summer, when heavy rains make the rivers swell, the upper part of thefinca is cut off from Oran for several months. Although a basic self-sufficiency interms of food still prevails, the incorporation of rice and pasta into the daily dietand the dependency on other cash items have created a need for money that can only beearned outside the finca. For this purpose some men work in the petroleum industry inthe south of the country, while their families remain in the finca. Others, sometimestogether with their families, migrate seasonally to harvest tobacco, wine, onions, andstill others move to urban centres. As a result, over the years there has been a slow but constant decline in the number of inhabitants. Developing income-generating projects is therefore one of the priorities of the communities, in order to offer members alternatives to leaving.
The Kollas’ memory of their presence in the region goes back many centuries, and within the finca archaeological remains like stone wails bear witness to this presence. The kollas say these are remains of their resistance against Spanish conquerors, who entered the region for the first time in 1535 and were finally defeated in 1822 in the Argentinian war of independence. For their participation in the war the Kollas were promised ownership of their land, just one in a long series of broken promises made by
In fact, the finca and its inhabitants were sold in 1936 at a public auction to Robustiano Patron Costas, a powerful national and provincial politician who owned the large sugar factory of San Martin del Tabacal. He forced the Kollas to work for six months each year in the sugar cane harvest to pay the rent for their land. Many men remember the hard work from sunrise to sunset under the overseer’s whip, which some started as young as 12 years old.
In 1946, General Juan Peron became president of Argentina, and only months later 179 Kollas from the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, encouraged by his populist politics, marched the more-than-1,300 kilometres to Buenos Aires to petition him for the return of their land. Many of the participants in what became known as the Malon de la Paz (Raid of Peace) walked, others went by mule or horse, and it took them over three months to reach the national capital where they were warmly welcomed by Peron on August 3, 1946. Members of the march who are still alive remember the emotional encounter, during which, they recount, Peron acknowledged their rightful ownership of the land and promised to set in motion the process of expropriation.
However, a few weeks later, on August 28, at about 2 a.m., police entered the hotelwhere the Kollas were staying with orders to remove them. The Kollas, not willing toreturn home without obtaining what they had come for, resisted, but in the end weredragged into a train that had already been prepared and, together with their animals,brought back “like sheep,” as one participant describes it, to their natal provinces.Despite this violent ending of their peaceful march, several national and provincial laws on expropriation were proposed in the following years, which would have allowed indigenous peoples to reclaim their lands. One of the laws led to the expropriation of Kolia lands in Jujuy. Not so in Salta, however, which is governed by conservative, long-established landowners like Patron Costas.
By the 1970s, mechanization of the sugar cane harvest had made the Kolias’ labour superfluous, and in the early 1980s, the Tabacal sugar company tried to remove them from San Andres. A new administrator greatly increased their rent payments and forbade them from bringing construction material into the finca to prevent them from building houses in three newly-formed villages. “Tb this aim, he set up a locked gate at the entrance of the finca to which only he had the key. Having to ask for permission to enter their own land finally rekindled the land struggle.
With the help of a lawyer and three protest marches to the provincial capital of Salta, the Kolias forced the sugar factory to donate 80,000 hectares in the upper part of the finca to the province to be handed over to the Kolias. There was, however, one condition: that they empty the remaining lower part where the most fertile lands are located. The Kolias, remembering a winter in which the administrator forced them to remain in the upper part and in which many of them had lost great numbers of their livestock, knew this would mean their slow extinction and could not accept the donation under this condition. This dispute is before the courts until today.
Still empty-handed, the Kolias decided to take their struggle right back to the national capital and went to Buenos Ares once again in 1993, where they met with President Carlos Menem. In the same year a national law was passed expropriating 15,000 hectares in the lower part of the finca, which now belongs to the Kolias, although the titles to this land have not yet been handed over to them.
In 1996, Tabacal declared bankruptcy and passed into the hands of the national government, which sold the majority of its shares to the U.S.-based company Seaboard Corp. “They sold us once again, just like 60 years ago,” dryly commented Kolia leader Serafina Cruz, who is president of their political organization, called Tinkunaku. A new company administrator, Miguel Montalban Smith, continued attempts to displace the Kolias, experience for which he had acquired, in his own words, in Chiapas. Soon after his arrival, according to local witnesses, he started destroying the Kolias’ property, stealing their animals, sabotaging their work until taking physical actions against them and threatening their lives. In June 1997, the Kolias had enough and blocked the only road leading to San Andres, allowing Montalban to pass on foot only.
On June 26, 1996, provincial police attacked the Kolias, many of them women with babies, with tear gas and rubber bullets in order to lift the roadblock. Prepared to die rather than give in, the Kolias defended themselves with stones and bare fists. Montalban left the area later, as the result of still another march to Buenos Aires.
But the Kollas were not allowed to enjoy their victory for long. In the beginning of this year construction of a pipeline began to transport natural gas from the province’s east to copper mines in northern Chile. The pipeline passes right through the finca. It is Feeding the Pachamama on August 1.
being financed by an international consortium called Consortium Norandina S.A., which consists of Belgium, U.S., Spanish and Chilean firms. Greenpeace Argentine supports the Kolias’ demand for the pipeline to be rerouted, saying it endangers one of Argentina’ last remaining mountain rainforests. Greenpeace also questions the insufficient environmental-impact studies that, it says, neglect the pipeline’s social and cultural impacts, treating the finca as uninhabited territory.
After a series of legal injunctions, a federal judge ruled that the pipeline’s impact would be minimal and negligible. In the beginning of August, the caterpillars of Techint, the company hired for the construction, entered the finca, leaving a trail of 12 metres in width in the middle of the rainforest by uprooting trees in their entirety. The pipeline also cuts through the middle of the village of San Andres, and originally threatened several cemeteries and archaeological sites, though it will now go around due to the Kolias’ mobilization. The pipeline crosses a mountain range and the river San Andres several times, and the Kollas fear the river, which greatly swells with the summer rains and carries large rocks, might damage the pipes, which are only buried at a depth of one metre. They are also afraid of mountain slides and soil erosion which will damage their fields, as well as the massive presence of strangers in the finca.
Their struggle included meetings with government officials, a trip of Kolia leader Serafina Cruz to Belgium to denounce the pipeline’s impact at the Belgium consortium partner’s annual shareholder meeting, as well as a protest camp set up near the construction site. These efforts met with great resistance from Salta’s provincial government and the population of Oran, whose inhabitants are in favour of the pipeline because of the jobs Techint promised to create.
Public opinion was also incited by Radio Guemes, a local radio station notorious for its racist programming, which at the height of the dispute called for physical actions against the Kollas. “They are slowly killing us,” said Eucebio Condori, one of the Kolia leaders. “Little by little they are tightening the noose around our necks. They are leaving us orphans without land, and without land we will simply disappear.”
The Kollas’ struggle is far from over, and with plans of Seaboard to develop tourismin San Andres the next confrontation looms large on the horizon. In the face ofever-more-powerful adversaries, it sometimes seems hard to keep hopes up, but knowingthat they are not fighting alone and that other nations in the Americas, like the Crees
of James Bay, have managed to stop large-scale development projects, helps themcontinue their struggle.