“In the art of killing each other as fast as possible, humanity is progressing splendidly.”
– General Ignacio Fotheringham, Commenting on the Remington repeater rifle
“Well, we have an unexpected situation,” said Miguel, the farm manager.
We had just arrived at the airport at Salta. We were prepared for bad news. Bad news is what always greets absentee landowners. Especially where we are.
A truck breaks down. One of the employees has an accident. It doesn’t rain. A frost has killed all the apples, plums, grapes… A puma has killed calves.
We have a very small vineyard. Each year we await the harvest with the anticipation of a teenager planning his first date. We know something is going wrong.
The first year, the gauchos (who are cattlemen by experience and inclination) waited too long to pick the grapes. By the time they got to it, most of the crop had dried up in the intense heat. The second year, a fungus struck the grapes just weeks before harvest. The work crew didn’t know what it was or what to do about it. Almost all the crop was lost. Then, last year was a drought year. Diligent irrigation saved the crop. But then, the bees, deprived of a good crop of alfalfa flowers, took to the fruit of the vine like winged dipsomaniacs. Another crop lost. We got only 60 bottles of wine,
Bad news? We’re used to it.
“Everything is okay so far,” continued our man on the scene. ” But one of the ‘pastajeros’ is stirring up trouble. He’s refused to sign his lease. And he’s claiming he has indigenous rights. You know, his family was here forever. He says you don’t own the land. He says he owns it.
“And he’s going around to the other pastajeros telling them not to pay their rent or sign their leases. This could be bad…”
The pastajeros are people who live up in the mountains on our land, usually many hours – on foot trails – from the ranch house and the main corrals. The furthest away walks ten hours to take his children to school. There they stay, until he comes back for them months later.
There are 25 of these families who live on our land. They are subsistence farmers – with goats, sheep, and cattle that wander around half-wild. Each one has a house and a parcel – often thousands of acres – where he raises his animals and his family. He grows ‘choclo,’ the local corn…and sells animals from time to time. And when he dies his children have the right to continue. But they acknowledge that they are renting the land; it is not theirs.
“Indigenous rights? I thought the Spanish wiped out the local Indians,” we replied.
“They did. Supposedly, they exterminated the Gualfines tribe. They made their last stand right here on the ranch. Up at that place called the ‘fortress.’ According to legend, they retreated up there…held out as long as they could with bows and arrows…and then, when they ran out of water, they jumped off the cliff to kill themselves.
“Argentina has a bad reputation for its treatment of the Indians. Critics say the Argentines exterminated the native populations. I don’t think it is entirely true. Probably no more true than in the US.”
The native peoples were a big problem for Argentine settlers. Not so much in this area, but in the vast plain around Buenos Aires and to the south. The natives were fabulous horsemen and apparently knew neither fear nor mercy. At least, according to the accounts not written by them. They raided, killed men, stole cattle, and took women and children as prisoners. At one point, the Indians had 6,000 captives. General de Rosas had to put a whole army in the field in 1835 to liberate them.
There were only an estimated 50,000 or so of these people in an area as big as France, Britain, Germany and Spain combined. But they moved fast. And when the settlers tried to bring them under control, they simply retreated to the mountains. This was the state of things in Argentina for nearly a century, making most of the country a largely uninhabited ‘desert.’ Then, General Roca “the Fox” took a force of some 6,000 men equipped with the latest Remington repeater rifles and determined to put an end to the Indian problem once and for all. His strategy was new. The Indians weren’t prepared for it. Instead of advancing against them from Buenos Aires, he went behind them and cut off their retreat to the mountains. Given the distances involved, his feat was remarkable and daring. But it worked. The Indians had two choices. They could die or they could surrender. Most surrendered, according to the official accounts. After the campaign of 1879, the Indians were no longer a serious threat.
“But who knows?” Miguel continued. “This guy and his family have been on that land forever. And as far as he’s concerned he’s indigenous to the area. And Evo Morales has kind of gotten all the local people stirred up…given them the idea that they have some rights that you and I don’t have. And it doesn’t help that you don’t live there…and you’re a gringo.”
“Does this fellow speak Quechua, like Morales? ” we asked.
“No, of course not. There aren’t really any ‘indigenous’ peoples here. Like I told you, the Spanish pretty much took care of that. But there are a lot of people with Indian blood. In fact, almost everyone has Indian blood in this area. I mean, all the local people.
“Just like the Argentines…leave the job half done,” said Jules.
“Jules, a lot of people up here would not find that very funny.”
“Okay…well…seriously…the Spanish murdered the Indians and stole the land. That’s what happened throughout all of history…almost everywhere. Homo sapiens probably hunted Neanderthal man to extinction and took his land. Barbarians murdered the Romans and took their land. The Huns murdered everyone in their way and took their land. The Celts invaded Britain and took the land of the Britons. And then the Anglo- Saxons invaded. And then, the Danes invaded. And then, the Normans invaded.
“And then the English invaded Ireland and half the world. Hey, we’re Irish. We dispossessed Irish should have some indigenous rights too.
“It just seems ridiculous that these people are claiming title to land that they lost 5 centuries ago. They came as immigrants too. Maybe it was 10,000 years ago. But they’re still not really indigenous. They’re just earlier immigrants than we are. And they’re just sore losers.”
“Yes, it is ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious,” Miguel replied. “This is politics. And in politics, often the most ridiculous thing becomes the law of the land. Especially here in Argentina.”
Jules didn’t mention it, but recent evidence suggests that the “native Americans” might have been guilty of stealing land too. As we understand it, all known “Indian” peoples in the New World come from the same immigration across the Bering Straits, some 10,000 years ago. But archeologists have found bones that are much more ancient. What happened to these people? No one knows.
“But people in this area never did speak Quechua. They were members of various Diaguita tribes. They were tributary to the Inca. So maybe some of them did speak Quechua…but the tribes here were not Inca and had their own language.
“Which makes it pretty interesting. The local tribes were conquered by the Inca – Morales’ people – before they were conquered by our people…Europeans. The Spanish didn’t take away the Diaguita’s rights, in other words. They didn’t have any rights. They were already vassals to the Inca. When the Spanish beat the Inca, the Diaguita…including the Gualfines – were liberated. But, of course, the Spanish didn’t stop in Peru. They came down here not too long after. They figured they owned the Diaguita lands too, by right of conquest.
“I guess what really got the situation moving in the wrong direction was what happened at the farm next door. They had a situation where a huge farm had been abandoned for almost 50 years. The owners must have died and forgotten it. It wasn’t worth anything much, I guess. But there were hundreds of pastajeros living on the land. So, the government just decided to give the land to the people living there. They’re doing the surveying now. And now people are running around saying that the people asserted their indigenous rights, which wasn’t exactly true. They asserted squatters’ rights. And in that case, it worked, because the owners had disappeared. No one seemed to have a valid title.
“That’s not the case here. You have a good title. And when you bought the place, the previous owner had made sure that he had signed contracts with all the pastajeros, which meant that they signed a paper acknowledging that they were leasing the land, not owners of it.”
“Then what happened to this guy? What’s his beef?”
“Well, the same thing that always happens. The people who’ve been there for years and years are okay with the system. Besides, they don’t really pay us anything much. It’s more of a symbolic payment. They give us 5 percent of their animals. But there animals aren’t worth anything. They overgraze the land. The animals are unhealthy and skinny. We don’t get much for them.
“And we wouldn’t really mind if they didn’t pay us…but they need to pay us something or they’ll be considered squatters and then they’ll be able to assert squatters’ rights against us.
“This guy left the farm and went to the city. He got a lot of bad ideas in his head. Then, his aunt, who was the person with whom we had the contract, died. He inherited the leasehold, I guess. It’s not really clear because it’s a special category of leasehold. The pastajeros can pass it along to their children, whether we like it or not.”
“Why not just get some guys with shotguns…” Jules suggested. “Ride up on horses…rough him up… Heck, be gentlemanly about it. Don’t do it in front of his family. Then, burn down his barn. That’s the way they used to do it in the movies.”
“Uh…thanks…Jules,” Miguel continued. “But you couldn’t do that even if you were serious. He no longer lives on the farm.”
“What? This is getting more and more complicated.”
“Yes, this whole indigenous rights thing is a problem. It’s not a legal issue, really. It’s political. These guys vote. And there are more of them than there are large landowners like you. I can count the number of landowners in the entire valley on one hand. And half the landowners aren’t even local residents, so you can’t vote anyway.”
Later, we drove up to the ranch. The drive takes 5 hours. It takes you over high mountain passes, along dangerous cliffs, through deserts and a few dust-blown villages. The views are spectacular. It is barren, empty country. We barely passed a single other car the whole way.
“Hard to imagine that we’d have trouble with other people up here,” said Jules. “There are so few of them.”
When we finally got to the ranch, Jorge and Maria gave us big hugs and kisses. A light wind was blowing from the east. Stars were already out, bright in a moonless sky. Marta prepared tea and then dinner.
Jorge is the capataz, the ranch foreman. He is also about as “indigenous” as they come. We asked him about the problem.
“Indigenous? Santos [the insurgent] is no more indigenous than I am or than we all are. But he moved to the city. And when good peones move to the city they get a lot of bad ideas. I don’t like it when they come back. They think they know more than the rest of us. They cause trouble.”
“And Omar was a good peone. And then Santos married his aunt. Well, they live together…they’re not really married in the church. And so Santos began putting a lot of bad ideas in Omar’s head too. And then Omar decided he didn’t want to work for us. He’d rather just get welfare payments. They all live on welfare. They get money for each child. And they get money because they can’t find jobs. Well, of course they can’t find jobs; they live up in the mountains. The only jobs are here with us.
“But Omar’s head has been turned. He’d rather get welfare. And did you notice how he greeted you yesterday? You’re the ‘patron.’ He used to greet you properly. But now he’s ashamed to be associating with you. He hangs back. He sulks. He avoids me…and you too. He’s going to leave. He keeps saying. But he lives in our house – I mean in one of the houses that belongs to the ranch. And he goes into town from time to time and works for a couple days. Then, he doesn’t come back.
“He should at least go up and help Felix and Elena. He’s Elena’s son. You know, it’s a little sad. She had lots of children. I don’t even know how many. But now she and Felix are up there by themselves. And they’re getting old and can’t get around very much. Omar should be helping them. He used to be a good peone.
“But that’s just the way people are. They start thinking about politics. And they stop caring about anyone else.”
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