By Alejandro Linares
The reconstruction of provincial route 28, in the center-west of Formosa, surrounded by strong claims for irregularities, raises a cloud of doubts about a project of the provincial government crossed by controversy.
Indigenous Peoples and Peasants Affected: Paradoxes of Formosan Development
A work of history that repeats itself, the simple life of livestock producers and Pilagá communities, who ask to participate in the design of the plan, is threatened by the flooding of their fields, which would be generated by the lifting of the dirt road that cuts off from north to south the immense bathed "La Estrella". It travels about 400 kilometers from the western tip of the province to the center of it - 400,000 hectares - and forms a mirror of water that increases its extension between the months of March and August. At this time, it stretches out like a silver carpet that the sun bounces off the bushes it entangles, the camalotes it drags and the exotic species of birds that come from different corners of the sky.
The project of the provincial government aims to solve the problem of territorial integration, since the waters have destroyed the route when they exceeded their level in times of flood, and to manage them for agricultural exploitation and human use. For this, initially, it was planned to raise the route 45 centimeters in a 40-kilometer section, recondition the drainage spillway and create gates that channel the water.
The cost of the work is 29 million pesos, provided by the Inter-American Development Bank through the Federal Ministry of Planning, and it is part of a program of said bank for the "recovery of areas affected by floods." However, as a paradox that draws the whimsical course of the bathed, -or the provincial government- the rehabilitation of the road would increase the flood zone 6,000 hectares more than the current 11,500, according to Luis de la Cruz, an environmental technician who works with the residents Creoles and the 10 Pilagá communities that would be in real danger of losing their lands due to the arrival of water.
A study carried out by this specialist denies the guarantee of passability with the planned reconstruction, and explains that the existing data and used for the design are insufficient to determine the degree of impact that the work will have on the life and economy of the inhabitants.
The construction area is part of the Pilagá territory, and the communities of Campo del Cielo, El Descanso -the most affected-, Pozo Perdido, Km. 30, La Bomba, El Simbolar, La Línea, Pozo Molina, Lote coexist in it. 13 and Laqtasantanyi, along with cattle families, some of whom have worked there for more than 100 years.
After persistent complaints from those affected, the executing unit of the project in Formosa, the Central Program Administration Unit (UCAP), suggested lowering the elevation of the route to 15 centimeters, but this does not mean any substantial change for the complainants, since According to them, fields continue to be flooded permanently, and there is no response to demands for participation in the design of the work.
The questions to the government go far beyond technical issues. In any case, these are only part of a discussion stained by the land that flies with the north wind, which turns embers in the sun, seems to drown out the complaints of aborigines and creoles, and cover up the history of the bath that deserves to be told.
From Eecorrido Antojadizo ...
In 1993, due to the recurring flooding of Route 28, it was decided to raise it and make a 700-meter asphalt speed bump (landfill) -the lowest area of the road that allows the passage of the bathed- in addition to gates that open or close according to the epochs. The work sought to take advantage of the embankment of the route to divert water to Las Lomitas - a nearby town and center of the region - through a parallel channel.
Both the organizations linked to Pilagá groups and the local producers coincide in recalling that, at that time, the project was questioned because it was considered unviable in that place and alternative proposals were made that were not heard. Juan Carlos Godoy, from Incupo (Popular Culture Institute) maintains: "The government's project was to irrigate all the fields that were next to Route 28, but that canal never worked because the slope that exists from the bathed is barely one meter, and as it is a canal built of earth, it sedimented and got dirty. Much money was spent, when in reality the water never reached Las Lomitas, nor did it irrigate the fields. "
Víctor Ruiz Díaz, a producer in the area and a member of APROBAE (Bañado La Estrella Producers Association), recalls that the embankment was used as a reservoir, contradicting technical suggestions, and no information was given about the problems that this could cause. "As a result of that work, there were major floods that have caused the producers to lose a lot of livestock. But it was obvious that the water had to break that route, and it broke it every time more than 3000 cubic meters per second came, which is quite normal. in the area, "he says.
The losses of fields and livestock, as a result of the unexpected arrival of water, were never recognized or compensated by any government, and this is demonstrated by the indignation that worries the always minimal voice and the toasted tranquility of the face of Blas Gómez, a small Creole producer: "It seems that no one measured the consequences when they built the landfill. It is already costing me 100 animals and the government does not see reasons. They did it without consulting, and when 50 steers died together, no one recognized them."
Worse luck fell to Daniel Torres, who hides his boiling head under his hat while he wipes the sweat that runs into the wrinkles of 52 years of sun: "The work of '93 came and the field disappeared. I lost everything I had : house, corral, wire. Nobody recognized me what I lost until now and it seems that they will never recognize me ". Wrapped in the smell of the countryside, half land, half horse, Benito Porcel, 62, synthesizes: "Nobody recognized what we lost, neither me nor anyone else, nobody remembers us."
Neither the Pilagá hunters and gatherers have been able, apparently, to take advantage of the benefits of the gates and channels, as suggested by José Domínguez, Pilagá representative of the Pozo Perdido community: It is now. Before we could take advantage of the water and the fish. "
On October 10, 2003, the zigzagging and questioning journey of the project began - its public side. That day, the public hearing was held in Las Lomitas to publicize the work that would be carried out. On that occasion, the questions made to the project by aborigines and producers were noted, but it was not modified. Both the call for bids and the environmental impact study had already been done by the government.
Luis Zapiola, a lawyer for Pilagá communities and Creole ranchers, emphasizes that the IDB establishes in its regulations that said study must be carried out by an independent entity and that this was not respected. In the same way, Juan Carlos Godoy, from Incupo, affirms that the law provides that those affected must have the project one month before the hearing to study it and discuss it in the case that they deem appropriate, however the majority found out about it that day.
He also maintains: "They presented how the work was going to be but nobody had the project, only they had it, no matter how much it was requested." Blas Gómez, a local producer, joins the claim: "They never came to tell us that they wanted to do this, to ask us what we thought. We have the right to, at least, they tell us what they want to do, that they give us explanations. we have a production underway. "
The environment committee of the financing bank clearly outlines, in documents posted on the Internet, "the need to consult indigenous groups directly or indirectly affected by the operations financed by the Bank and to involve them in the stages of identification, design, analysis, execution and evaluation ". Godoy insists in this regard: "The provincial government does not want to understand that indigenous participation has to take place from the zero point of the project"
Leaving behind the technical discussion by political decision, the time of the legal battle began: the communities of Campo del Cielo and El Descanso presented together with local producers, through a special power of attorney given to Luis Zapiola, an administrative claim before the provincial government. and the Federal Ministry of Planning, by which said body ordered to stop the works to analyze the case.
From there, the organizations committed to the cause denounce, a period of strong pressure and promises on aborigines and producers began to desist from the claims, while the work did not stop. The accusations target government officials, political leaders and representatives of the Institute of Indigenous Communities (ICA).
The land made skin, José Domínguez, Pilagá from Pozo Perdido, complains about the treatment he received in recent times: "At the ICA there is nothing for us. I verified it when they took me to Formosa for the firm, nothing more, and they offered me final title, school, first aid room, everything; but it's been two months since that and I don't see anything. I thought it was true that they would give me something. We signed without being notified and to this day I don't know what is what we signed, but it was like five papers. "
Tereré in hand, calm and tired gaze, the voice comes serenely from the mouth of Bartolo Fernández, from the Pilagá Federation that brings together the 18 ethnic communities in Formosa: "All representatives of indigenous communities and They are looking for one by one those who signed power to Zapiola. They made promises to give what the community lacks and the representatives thought they were true, and that's why they went to Formosa, but when they revoked power, they gave him very little things ".
When the Federal Ministry of Planning verified the existence of inhabitants and indigenous peoples affected by the work, it suggested to the provincial government that it carry out technical and legal modifications that allow it to resume and compensate for possible losses, however, the secrecy and terms of the project were maintained . To date, its public documents are scarce and concise, and the UCAP, the executing unit, has not responded to inquiries on the matter.
In Formosa, where the return to democracy saw only three names from the Justicialista Party in the positions of governor and deputy governor, the protagonists are repeated, and sometimes, they contradict each other. In 1985, then-Governor Floro Bogado gave the Pilagá the title to their ancestral lands. The same official, 19 years later and as lieutenant governor, on April 15 of this year, promoted the approval, in a closed book and on tables - without treatment in commission - of the law of expropriation of the same lands, with which the government Gildo Insfrán tried to unblock the legal problem. It was forgotten, however, that the National Constitution maintains that aboriginal lands are not alienable, and it also forgot that it had organized a Latin American Meeting of Indigenous Cultures for April 17 on the waterfront of the capital city.
Threatened the aboriginal territory as a whole with the expropriation law, the Pilagá communities decided to present, through their lawyer, the request to the IDB Office in Washington, for the opening of the Independent Investigation Mechanism; an appeal for amparo before the National Attorney General's Office - which has already recognized the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in the case -; and the request for a precautionary measure before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - which has requested more information to address the facts.
Given the immediate claims and the repercussions of the event, the government decided to modify the law: it changed the term to "public utility", and ordered that the lands affected by the work be declared of public utility.
The representatives of the communities of Campo del Cielo and El Descanso finally revoked the powers given to lawyer Luis Zapiola, to sign, on April 21, an agreement with the IDB, the Ministry of Federal Planning and the provincial government, in which they agreed the execution of the work. With this arrangement, the jobs were restarted. But they were suspended again in September, as the bank cut funding and opened the investigation mechanism. The area was visited by foreign technicians from the inter-American entity last October, and in the first days of December, the IDB's representation in Buenos Aires authorized the resumption of the work, without previously compensating those affected.
However, the claims continue, the amparo appeal is continuing, as well as the independent investigation mechanism launched from Washington.
Luis Zapiola reflects on the current situation: "If the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court and the IDB took up our claims, it is because they consider them reasonable."
"I will say that all is lost"
Father Francisco Nazar, priest of the Las Lomitas parish and committed to the original communities of Formosa for more than two decades, warns that he has had to open the doors of his church for the producers of the area to hold their meetings, since They claimed that only there did they feel protected from the pressure of political leaders.
From contact with those affected, he draws some impressions: "The Creole is defining himself by defending his territory. They know very well that they are between death and life, because if the government does the work, the fields will be flooded and they will have to withdraw. They realize that this is death for them and for their future. "
Scorched chins and eyes that show the daily training of the celestial fire, a tired tune hangs slowly from the belts and the alarm bells of the small producers: "If they do it as they want to do it, there we lost. They do not give us any hope. of salvation.
I don't want to go, it's not easy to leave the roots. We want the water to be allowed to run naturally as it came with the bath "says Daniel Torres. As worried as he is, Mauricio Benítez, from the Alto Alegre area, is heard," If the route is lifted, we are under water. We live by raising ranches to sell. We have no studies, we have nothing to go elsewhere to work. If the work is done, we have to die directly. We are born and raised there, and if they don't bother us we have to die there. "
Blas Gómez looks for the words that escape him between his breath to tereré: "There was the life of our parents and ours will remain. We are determined to continue to the last consequences because we have no other. We are not able to sit at a desk We are capable of riding a horse, herding a cow and making it produce; that is why we do not want to abandon our field. From now on, we feel discriminated against, homeless, because there is our homeland. "
Stooped to speak, Anator Chávez grows smaller than his eyes behind his powdered glasses. You can hardly hear him bring up the phrases with effort: "The government never writes down on losses and many times I was well alone. He did not notify anyone that he was going to do the work, and on tables they released the expropriation law later, it is outrageous . We will continue as far as possible. " When asked about the possibility of having to move, he answers: "I will say that everything is lost, I will say that I have lost again. I am 65 years old and it is not a day, I have lived through many things. The government does not listen."
Earth Covered Machines
Wrapped in the dusty eddies of the hot north wind, the construction site's machines perspire, calcined the doubts of a project that began in question, and on its way, felt the heat strokes of a discussion that burns like the atmosphere that surrounds it.
Speaking to the provincial capital's La Mañana newspaper on September 5, 2004, Governor Insfrán criticized those who, according to him, "are blatantly lying and are responsible for the fact that the IDB has decided to paralyze the water works on Route 28." He also explained in that medium that "there are still some fools who do not understand that this work is not by a particular government or to benefit a group of people."
However, those who criticize the project claim not to oppose the improvements to the route and the area, but rather to the design and procedures with which the government implemented them. Zapiola, after stating that he did not imagine that it would cost him so much to practice the profession in Formosa, made clear the position of his defendants: "The organizations and communities that claim are not opposed to the reconstruction work of the route, but they are to the project design, because it will flood more land and for a longer time than it currently floods, because the danger of water seeping and breaking the dam remains, because the IDB guideline indicating that the communities of Affected native peoples must participate from the design, because no participation or knowledge was given to the communities and producers, for violating the property rights of the indigenous communities. "
In addition to underlining that the proposed alternative project involves a much lower cost without harming anyone, the lawyer agrees with Father Nazar in denouncing the lack of information from the population and doubting government practices. "The government was carrying out pressure operations. very crude and very strong, with aborigines and creoles.
The aborigines were very decimated, because they are held hostage with the food box, with the promise that they will give them land, trinkets that they are giving them. Campo del Cielo, one of the parts most affected by this work, is totally kidnapped. Their leaders have internalized that what the government says has to be, but without consulting their bases.
All the knowledge that there is of the bathed La Estrella is the lying face of the government, because they hide the truth, for example when they say that the bath water is fresh water, and in reality it is brackish and bitter apart, "says the same priest who denounced , a little over a year ago in Telenoche Investiga, the physical abduction of aborigines on election days.
In the center of Formosa, the land takes over everything, and as it passes, it seems to sully the practices of the provincial government. Where the skin cries the flashes that machete from the sky the fields, Creole producers and Pilagá communities await the resolution of a conflict that threatens to drown their future.
* Communication student.