VUELTA DEL RIO — In the heart of the Argentinian region of Patagonia, near a spot called Vuelta del Rio, a banner hung by the side of the road stands out against the wilderness of the surrounding steppes. "Fuera Benetton de Territorio Mapuche" (Benetton, out of Mapuche Territory) it reads in red capital letters.

The words speak to long simmering antagonisms in the region between the Italian apparel company Benetton, the area's largest landowner, and members of the Mapuche indigenous community. This year, tensions are again boiling over, bringing back memories of the high-profile, David-and-Goliath fight, more than a decade ago, between Atilio Curinanco and Rosa Naheulquir, a Mapuche couple, and the billionaire brothers who own Benetton.

A native Mapuche indian on his horse in Patagonia — Photo: Ryan Noble

In 2004, the Mapuche couple lost a trespassing case filed against them for illegally occupying 500 hectares of Benetton-owned land in Chubut Province. But in order to protect its image, Benetton decided afterwards to offer 2,500 hectares of land to Mapuche communities via a property donation to the Argentine state. The couple and their lawyer, Gustavo Macayo, rejected the gift. "We don't want a donation. We want restitution," they said.

The "restitution" demand reflects the contested nature of the 900,000 hectares Benetton acquired in the region in 1991 when it bought a British company that had owned the land since 1889. Argentine Southern Land Company, as the British firm was originally known, was deeded the land in question by the Argentine state, presumably as a "thank you present" for financing the 1879-1881 "Desert Conquest," a military campaign in which Argentina added Patagonia to its national territory. The campaign involved the wholesale slaughter of Mapuche and Tehuelche Indians.

Nowadays, an indigenous "resistance" group calling itself the Lof de Resistencia Cushamen has taken up the fight over the contested territory. Like Atilio Curinanco and Rosa Naheulquir, the group occupied Benetton-owned land before being forcibly evicted by state security forces. The eviction operation took place in February.

Members of the Mapuche community — Photo: Carlos Gonzalia

"Benetton is a strategic enemy. Not just because they're billionaires, and Italian, but because their land is so much better than the arid land where the indigenous communities now live," one the hooded spokespeople for the Lof de Resistencia Cushamen told reporters.

Benetton has tried to maintain a low profile but is actively involved in the case. The company is supporting and helping the police with the goal of driving the indigenous group out. Five members of the community have already been charged under a special anti-terrorist law.

When asked why they cover their faces, the activists say it's to avoid "permanent political and judiciary persecution." But it's a double-edged sword. For many observers, the hoods make them seem dangerous, a fact that Benetton is eager to exploit.

Maximiliano Huala, a spokesperson for the movement, says they want to engage in political dialogue. Instead they're being pursued as criminals. More complicated still for the frustrated indigenous groups are efforts by the government of President Mauricio Macri, who came to power in December 2015, to encourage foreign investment in Patagonia by easing restrictions against non-Argentine landowners.


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