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Argentina's marginalised community

A mayor is elected from forgotten community in the country's north, but life for many Toba people is still difficult.
Last modified: 11 Aug 2012 00:40

So much and so little has changed in the last five years in Chaco. The first important thing that has happened is that a man like Ricardo Sandoval, who never thought he would occupy an important job in his life, has become the mayor of El Espinillo.

This is a small town close to an area known as the "Impenetrable" in northern Argentina. The name of the area says it all. It is difficult to access and is far away from the main cities.

Sandoval is a member of the Toba peoples and the first mayor who comes from an indigenous group. "We want them to know that we're like the white people - that we can rule ourselves," he told me.

"The fact that I was elected is a big move but we need much more. Some ministries are ignoring us."

In 2007 this community was plagued by disease and undernourishment. Children were dying. At the time a human rights activist told me that there was apartheid in Argentina, and that the Tobas were condemned.

But people in El Espinillo tell us that the situation has improved since then. There is now a new hospital to treat them and many of them have benefitted from the government's social plans. 

So now they are not dying but they are still living in extreme poverty. Celedonia Alegre, who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis, tells us her community is still in need. She still lives in the same adobe house she lived in five years ago.

"I've been suffering from tuberculosis for years and people give us some medicine in the hospital," she said. "But we need much more. Nobody comes to our houses to check on us. We're still forgotten."

Endemic poverty persists. Children are still barefoot, clad in old clothes and attend school sporadically. Their problems are the same problems that poor people face in Argentina every day.

One thing seems to be ongoing since the times we visited that area. Many communities have been displaced by large agricultural companies that have bought off most of the best farming land in the area. Agribusiness is one of the reasons why Argentina's economy has recovered since the crises of 2001.

But what has saved the economy on one side is making life hard for some indigenous groups. Thousands of Tobas are now living in the slums of Resistencia, Buenos Aires, and provinces like Santa Fe. They used to be able to hunt and gather in their lands but now they are no longer able to do so.  

Back in the city, they are struggling to adapt to life in the slums of the provincial capital, Resistencia. Luis Garcia, the chief of this group, says that he and his people are facing new problems.

"We're asking for work now for the Toba community, scholarships, shoes ... Our teenagers are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. In the city we're still discriminated against," he told me. 

On Friday Amnesty International demanded the Argentine government halt its policy to exclude indigenous groups from their territories something that threatens their subsistence and violates their rights to life, development, culture and health.

"State interest, agricultural projects and extractive industries as well as granting lands to companies are expelling indigenous groups from their territory," said Amnesty's Mariela Belski.

Argentina's economy has become reliant on the soya bean. Instead of confronting agricultural businesses that are pushing indigenous groups towards the city, the government is giving away social programmes to contain the consequences. The problem is that those families continue to be poor and are now dependent on the state. 

Last month a UN special envoy for indigenous rights, James Anaya, said that there is a lack of effort by the state and provincial governments to help indigenous groups. He also said that in comparison with non-indigenous groups, people like the Tobas and other ethnic groups show low levels of social and economic development.