A united world? Benetton and native Indians of Patagonia clash over land

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The Independent US

Their advertising campaigns featuring Aids victims and death-row inmates are a fading memory, but the Italian clothing company Benetton has established itself in the public imagination as a right-on, progressive sort of outfit. Its "United Colours of Benetton" slogan encapsulates its vision of the world as one big, happy, sweater-wearing family.

Their advertising campaigns featuring Aids victims and death-row inmates are a fading memory, but the Italian clothing company Benetton has established itself in the public imagination as a right-on, progressive sort of outfit. Its "United Colours of Benetton" slogan encapsulates its vision of the world as one big, happy, sweater-wearing family.

Now, however, the group is the target of fierce criticism in Argentina following a successful bid to throw an impoverished indigenous family off the company's land. "United colours of land grab," they are calling it.

Benetton became the biggest landowner in Argentina in 1997, when it bought 2.2 million acres (900,000ha) of land in Patagonia, the immense, empty zone in the far south of the country made famous by Bruce Chatwin's travelogue. Empty is how the land appears because of its vast undifferentiated vistas, but if it is also empty of people that's because big colonial landlords have been working to make and keep it that way for 500 years. The beaming, people-loving, inclusive Benetton brothers come at the end of a long and notably ruthless history.

The indigenous people, the Mapuche, also called the Gente de la Tierra (People of the Earth) have made Patagonia their home for 13,000 years, historians believe. But they were chased off the land and reduced to poverty by the Spaniards, and have been the victim of invasions, massacres and land grabs ever since. The most notorious was in 1879, when more than 1,300 Mapuche were killed and their lands confiscated for British settlers.

Free market reforms backed by President Carlos Menem in the 1990s encouraged wealthy North Americans and Europeans to pile into Patagonia, tempted by its low prices and Argentina's newly open economy; among the new landlords are celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner, Jerry Lewis and George Soros. When Benetton, or more correctly its family-owned holding company Edizione Holding Spa, in 1991 bought out the British-owned Compania Tierras Sud Argentina, it became the biggest landlord of them all.

Much of its land was used to graze 280,000 sheep, whose wool went into the firm's sweaters. And to prove that its heart was still in the right place, in 2002 it opened the Leleque Museum, in the village of that name, "to narrate the culture and history of a mythical land". Carlo Benetton was reported as saying on taking possession of his new domain: "Patagonia gives me an amazing sense of freedom."

But Benetton appears to give their surviving Mapuche neighbours an amazing sense of imprisonment. Atilio Curinanco was born in Leleque, less than a kilometre from where Benetton's new museum now stands.

He moved with his wife Rosa and their four children to the nearby town of Esquel to look for work, but, battered like so many in the slump that followed Argentina's crisis of 2001, they decided to go back to the land, to try to scratch a living again in the old way.

They set their sights on 740 acres of unoccupied land called Santa Rosa, land that traditionally belonged to the Mapuche, located next to a Benetton holding. In December 2001 they went to the Instituto Autaqquico de Colonizacion (IAC), a state-managed property agency, to ask permission to occupy the land. Eight months later, in August 2002, the IAC told them the property was "zoned commercial" and the agency intended to "reserve it for a micro-enterprise". Mr and Mrs Curinanco took that as a green light. They presented themselves at the local police station to say they planned to occupy the land, and the same day they and a group of friends moved in and started work.

As Mr Curinanco said later: "We went to the land without harming anyone. We didn't cut a fence. We didn't hide. We waited for someone to come and let us know if it bothered them."

In less than a month, however, the "Compania", as Benetton is known locally, notified the couple that the land was theirs and that they intended to take it back. Within two months the police had moved in, seized their belongings and dismantled their new home.

Regardless of the legal small print, the case was not looking good for Benetton's carefully constructed image, promulgated in its 7,000 retail outlets in 120 countries, and as soon as the story hit the press, in November 2002, the vice-president of the Compania met the Curinancos and tried to strike a deal. Benetton would drop charges against them, he said, if they would stop trying to recover the land. The Curinancos refused.

Last month the case came to court in the southern province of Chubut, with the couple accused of usurpation. After Benetton's first two witnesses recanted their previous testimony and denied that the couple had cut fences or entered the land by night, the criminal charge was dropped. But the family was told that they must give up the land because it belongs to the Compania.

Today, nearly two years after the eviction, the land is again empty and unused. "For us, democracy has not yet arrived," a leader of the Mapuche, Mauro Millan, lamented after the hearing.

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