Land returned after 16 years of nonviolent protest in Argentina

Mennonite couple aid indigenous people’s campaign

Jan 20, 2014 by and

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A victory for the indigenous Moqoit of Argentina has ended a 16-year legal dispute for the rights of their ancestral land.
Pastors Oscar Villalba, left, Moqoit and Maximo Galarza, Toba-Qom, on the El Tabacal land near Saenz Peña, Argentina. — Photo by Ryan Miller/MMN

Pastors Oscar Villalba, left, Moqoit and Maximo Galarza, Toba-Qom, on the El Tabacal land near Saenz Peña, Argentina. — Photo by Ryan Miller/MMN

Luis Acosta, who served with Mennonite Mission Network for 15 years as part of the Mennonite team working with indigenous people from the Chaco region of Argentina, used his surveying skills to further the efforts of land reclamation.

“This verdict … means the end of a long fight,” Acosta said. His wife, Monica, was also part of the Mennonite team.

The land, referred to as El Tabacal, is an almost 119-acre parcel in the Chaco that the provincial government sold to a white colonist named José Filip­chuk. It was nearly half of the 247 acres the hunter-and-gatherer Moqoit community had been living off since before white settlers arrived on the continent.

The lot is small compared to others the government has stolen from indigenous communities since the 1940s. In this productive farming region, white settlers have benefited mightily from the policies of the provincial government, Acosta said.

The colonizing of indigenous land has caused major disruptions in the Moqoit and other indigenous groups’ way of life. Some people choose to leave.

Oscar Villalba, a leader from the Moqoit community who works hard to win back his people’s land, was quoted in a sociological report: “When they [our people] go somewhere else, [our culture] starts disappearing.”

The community’s opportunity in the El Tabacal case came when the provincial government issued Filipchuk a provisional title for the land. Filipchuk could use the land but wouldn’t receive a permanent title until after he paid for it in full.

Since indigenous rights are included in Argentina’s constitution, Villalba and the community had legal reasons to pressure the provincial government not to issue the final title. The community won the case in 2006.

After the verdict, the Moqoit community allowed Filipchuk’s farmer to harvest his sunflower crop. But by February 2007, two months after the crop was harvested, the farmer’s laborer still lived on the land.

The farmer called the police when Villalba broke the lock on the laborer’s house. A visiting communications team from MMN came by the land and documented the proceedings. The police officers dealt fairly with both sides and escorted the farmer from the land.

But in 2011, the court overruled the 2007 verdict on technicalities related to Filipchuk’s widow, Patricia Tichy, and her access to the court proceedings.

“[The judgment] was for political reasons more than legal reasons,” Acosta said. “Everything we worked for went to zero.”

The community didn’t stop trying, and in September, the judge ruled that the government must respect the land of the indigenous community.

Tichy will appeal the verdict.

“[She has] a low probability of winning [the case], but there is always danger that politics will defeat justice,” Acosta said.

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