Indigenous people in Argentina appeal to Pope Francis amid mining protests

SÃO PAULO – Two weeks after Argentina’s northwestern province of Jujuy approved a broad constitutional reform, indigenous communities and unions, backed by an official arm of Argentina’s Episcopal Conference, are demonstrating against the reform and demanding its repeal.

Groups of protesters have blocked roads and marched against the changes to the law, which they say jeopardize their right to occupy traditional lands, their access to water and their right to demonstrate against the government.

(Credit: Gobierno de Argentina.)

On 30 June, some demonstrators went on a hunger strike.

Clemente Flores, an indigenous leader, also said they will continue to protest until the reform is withdrawn. He thinks more and more people will support their cause, including in the church.

“Last week we sent Pope Francis a letter about our situation. We are waiting for his answer and his support,” he said.

The Pastoral Team of Argentina’s Bishops for Indigenous Peoples (known by its Spanish acronym “Endepa”), the most outspoken ecclesiastical organization against the reform, has issued two statements criticizing Jujuy’s government since the reform process began, demanding the immediate annulment of the new constitution.

On June 15, before the adoption of the reform, a letter signed by Rodolfo Fernández, the national leader of Endepa, accused the local government of “passing through the constitutional reform quickly and without taking into account the diversity of the people living in live in the region”. , mentioning several indigenous nations.

The group of bishops accused the government of failing to comply with the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which requires signatory states to consult the peoples concerned “when considering legislative or administrative measures directly affecting them.” can hit. ”

“Again, the current political rulers, along with petty business interests, are falling the buen vivir [well living] of the people, who display an authoritarian attitude and excessive ambitions at the cost of the sacrifice not only of the territories, but also of their people,” the statement said.

The document also stated that “extractive processes damage and contaminate areas, especially water,” referring to the alleged mining interests behind the reform.

Two days later, Endepa issued a new letter, reaffirming its criticism of the reform process and denouncing the police used against demonstrators.

According to Clemente Flores, leader of an indigenous Kolla community, the provincial government tried to pass a new constitution last year but was unsuccessful. Now it did it in a “rushed way” to get it approved.

“It’s not clearly written. One can infer that our common lands and the water we use may be given over to companies,” he said. Key point.

Flores believes that companies interested in exploiting lithium support the constitutional reform.

“Giant mining efforts have been underway near the Chilean border as early as March. If the same thing happens here, all the water we use for our crops and to give to our livestock will run out,” he complained.

The Kolla have lived in that zone for 14,000 years, Flores said. Their production is not large: they keep a few animals, such as guanacos and sheep, and plant potatoes, wheat and other crops, mostly for their own use.

According to Father Abraham Pereira, a local Endepa member, the government argued that it consulted some indigenous communities during the reform process, but it is not clear which ones were heard.

“Most indigenous groups say that the government has not discussed the issue of lithium exploitation with them. Those projects would have a big impact on them, especially when it comes to water resources,” he said Key point.

Pereira believes that such issues “need more and more debate, and there was no time for that”.

“People need to know more about it, get reliable information from scientists and lawyers. So it is desirable that the current reform is now simply canceled,” he confirmed.

Pereira stressed that the church has asked all social segments to avoid violence and seek dialogue, but that has not been possible so far.

Several incidents of violence have been reported in recent weeks. Many protesters were wounded with rubber bullets – including a student who lost an eye – and dozens of activists were detained and charged with crimes related to the demonstrations, something that has been criticized by the federal government as a sign of political repression.

“It is not like during the military dictatorship (1976-1983), but it has been a fierce repression. Those groups only fight for their country,” confirms Guillermo Sapag, professor of economics at the National University of Jujuy.

He hopes the Supreme Court will rule the reform as unconstitutional, as several of its provisions appear to conflict with the national constitution.

On June 30, the government of President Alberto Fernández filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that the Jujuy reform be declared unconstitutional. Analysts say Jujuy’s governor, right-winger Gerardo Morales, has made efforts to gain national visibility ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, due to take place in August and October.

“He wanted to change the provincial constitution to be allowed to run for a third term, but he did not succeed. Now he is only working to ease the lithium exploitation in the region,” confirmed Sapag, a member of President Fernández’s Partido Justicialista.

Jujuy is part of the zone of the world’s largest lithium deposits, near the border with Bolivia and Chile.

“Giant corporations from Europe and the United States want to get their hands on those deposits,” he said.

But not only the indigenous communities are demonstrating. Several social segments, including teachers and government employees, have even joined them.

“Salaries have been too low, as have investments in public services. So in the end, many people in Jujuy complied with the protests,” explains Ivan Blacutt, a university professor and local leader of the Socialist Left party.

Blacutt said university students and professors have shown solidarity with the indigenous groups since the beginning, for example by opening the doors of the university for them to rest after the marches.

Another reason for the unification is the fact that the new reform includes a provision that prohibits demonstrators from occupying streets and roads during demonstrations.

“It became a united struggle of different unions. Most of us do not believe that the reform will be legally suspended, so we will continue to apply political pressure until the authorities give up,” he added.

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