South American land wars: Lot 8 and the mission to protect paradise

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In rural Argentina, a centuries-old battle for land between indigenous people and logging moguls has reached a remarkable conclusion. Fran Yeoman reports from Misiones.

It was 12.15am on a Sunday morning last month, in the first floor lobby of an identikit business hotel in north-east Argentina, that a very unlikely deal was done. Two of the last chiefs of that nation's indigenous Guaraní people, hundreds of miles and a world away from their forest home, put their signatures on an A3 print-out of a map, next to those of a local government minister, a lawyer, the young head of an Argentinian logging dynasty and two British conservationists.

The setting might have been unremarkable, but the significance of this low-key moment was huge, not only for the two Guaraní and their communities but for indigenous people right across South America and for anyone who cares about the preservation of that continent's precious remaining forests. With those signatures, the last remaining obstacle to a breakthrough settlement was overcome. For the first time in almost a century, the Guaraní people of Lot 8, a 9,300-acre stretch of Atlantic rainforest across the Uruguay river from Brazil, are about to get their land back.

The journey to the Hotel Urbano, in Posadas, capital of Argentina's Misiones province, begins, depending on your perspective, in February this year, six years previously, or in the 16th century, when the Guaraní roamed freely across a vast territory, including swathes of what are now Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, searching for a 'Land without Evil' that had been revealed to them by their ancestors. Then the Europeans arrived, bringing with them both armed violence and disease that wiped out huge numbers of indigenous inhabitants.

The Jesuits followed close behind the conquistadors, and established the missions that gave modern Misiones its name, herding thousands of animist Guaraní within their 'protective' walls in a bid to impose their own view of civilisation – a process fictionalised in the 1986 Oscar-winning Robert De Niro film The Mission. By 1818 and the end of the Argentinian war of independence, the Jesuits had long since been expelled – leaving a legacy of Christianity in many Guaraní communities – but the tribespeople's dominion over the forests had been broken. The newly self-governing state began selling off parcels of land with little heed to the fact that they were already home to a people.

It was in this way that, in 1907, Michel Laharrague began purchasing land in Misiones province, north-east Argentina. Many others were doing likewise, and the Guaraní living in the region found the land on which they had lived for centuries sold from under their feet. Today, there are only around 9,000 Guaraní left in Misiones, living in around 100 communities, moref than three-quarters of which are situated precariously on land that does not belong to them.

Lot 8 was added to the Laharrague portfolio by Michel's son some time during the inter-war period. At first, the Guaraní there fared better than many of their counterparts elsewhere. This parcel of land overlooking the spectacular Mocona waterfalls, in an area where 293 species of bird and 45 species of mammal including jaguar and puma have been recorded, was one of the more inaccessible parts of the Laharrague empire, and it lay relatively undisturbed until as late as 1997. But, eventually, the white men came, and life in the communities of Lot 8, Ita o Mirî, Tekoa Yma and Kapi'i Yvate – three small collections of earthen huts that are collectively home to fewer than 30 families – began to change.

"We had our own paths, we knew where they went; which led to medicine, which to food – but when they cut the trees and made big roads we got lost," says Artemio Benitez, as he squats on the ground in a clearing working at a chunk of tobacco with a knife. The diminutive 74-year-old is 'cacique' or chief of Tekoa Yma, which translates as 'ancient community'. Not even the Jesuits had separated his people, the Mbya Guaraní, from the land – his ancestors chose to hide in the forest, seeing themselves as its guardians, rather than enter the missions – but the new presence threw everything off balance. "We didn't know our way around the forest any more. Another thing was the destruction of materials to make our houses, they dragged the trees and it destroyed the bamboo and Pindo trees [a type of palm, the leaves of which are used for roofing]. There were fewer fruits, it affected the water. Their roads, the noise of their machines and the smell meant that the animals went far away so we had to walk too far to hunt. Our culture and our identity were getting weak."

By 1998, the communities of Lot 8 were faced with the need to seek outside help or move on, leaving their forest to the loggers. The latter was inconceivable, and so Benitez set off for the town of Aristobulo del Valle, a 93-mile, three-day walk away. There they found Kiki Ramirez, a white Argentinian nun and campaigner for indigenous rights who speaks Guaraní, and with her help their fight began in earnest.

In 1989, nine years before the Guaraní arrived in Aristobulo del Valle and around 7,000 miles away, a very different journey to the Hotel Urbano began in Suffolk. It started when John Burton, a former journalist and long-time conservationist, established a new charity with the aim of protecting important habitats around the world by providing local NGOs with the money to buy them. By 2006, with Sir David Attenborough among its patrons, the World Land Trust had enabled its partners worldwide to buy more than 300,000 acres in eight countries (those figures have since expanded to over 500,000 acres in 21 countries). It was then that WLT turned its attention to Lot 8, sandwiched between the Argentinian Esmeraldas provincial park and Brazil's do Turvo state park on the other side of the Uruguay river.

The deal should have been straightforward, particularly after Lot 8 changed hands within the Laharrague family in 2007, placing its future in the hands of 33-year-old Nicolas Laharrague. Of a different generation and mindset to the aunt from whom he had taken over the land, partly thanks to a childhood spent watching Attenborough nature documentaries, he was keen to run his forestry business, Puerto Laharrague, as responsibly as possible and sell Lot 8 – which remained a beautiful and almost unspoilt tract of rainforest despite the earlier selective logging that had so disturbed Benitez and his kin – to a group that would conserve it. He would keep a small portion of the plot to build an eco-lodge that would help pay to protect the rest – a proposal welcomed by a Misiones provincial government keen to attract eco-tourism to the region – and sell the rest tof Fundació* Naturaleza Para el Futuro (FuNaFu), an Argentinian NGO and WLT's partner in the country.

Yet for five years the deal stalled. What should have been a straightforward commercial transaction was repeatedly blocked by the Misiones government, and in December 2011, WLT's board of trustees, increasingly frustrated that money they had raised from private and corporate donors five years previously to purchase Lot 8 was still languishing in bank accounts, threatened to pull the plug. In some senses, the timing of WLT's bid for Lot 8 was unfortunate, for it coincided with a period in which Argentina's indigenous rights movement, as with others in South America, was beginning to make its long-neglected voice heard. For five years, unknown to Laharrague, WLT or FuNaFu, the Guaraní of Lot 8 had been successfully lobbying the Misiones government to prevent the sale of land they had long claimed as their own.

It was then that WLT's Burton called in Javier Jiménez Pérez, a professional conflict negotiator who has worked in Nicaragua, Peru and elsewhere specialising in environmental disputes around mining, dams, national parks and the like. He decided that he would attempt to get all the parties – the white landowner, the government, the conservationists and the Guaraní – around the same table. Including the indigenous people in negotiations was perhaps an obvious idea in retrospect, but it was a radical one in a country where they have been ignored and marginalised for centuries and where many Argentinians are unaware of their very existence, assuming them to have been wiped out long ago.

"The people here in Argentina and white people in Europe – all of us think there aren't indigenous people in Argentina. They [the Argentinians] are really successful at making them invisible," says Jiménez, a Spaniard whose at-times mischievous sense of humour belies a genuine sensitivity towards the various motivations of all parties in this complex equation. "This is a kind of really effective violence. 'If you see me we can fight, but if you don't see me I can't fight with you. I don't exist.' So we broke a taboo because the Guaraní people were at the table in the negotiations."

Sitting down at that table, flanked by Kiki Ramirez and her colleague Vasco Baigorri, was a leap of faith for Benitez and his two fellow chiefs, after centuries during which contact between his tribe and white people has brought disappointment, or worse. "They broke a taboo too," adds Jiménez, "because it is the first time here in Misiones that they can have an agreement with the white people and it is not a trap."

And so the meetings began; tense at first, with Jiménez resorting to his young nephew's toys in an early bid to coax his participants into dialogue. Allocating small animal figures – a jaguar, lion, horse and elephant – to the Guaraní, government, Nicolas Laharrague and Luis Castelli, the lawyer who heads FuNaFu, he told them that by always standing face to face, because of their mutual mistrust, they were not looking around them at their mutual enemies such as hunting and deforestation – represented, among other things, by a T-Rex. "Instead," he said, moving the toys, "we must stand back to back."

Some of the meetings took several days to set up, with Benitez and the others having neither cars nor phones, and the talks were often laborious, with the need not only to translate every statement but on occasion to resort to first principles, such as explaining to the chiefs the white men's maps of the place they called home.

"We were working with feelings, with 20 years of Artemio's fight, with land that has been in Nicolas' family for 100 years," says Jiménez. "In Argentina, which is a young country, that is a really long time. He loves the land, too." At times, the talks looked set to collapse altogether as two cultures with little real understanding of each other clashed – for example, over whether all Guaraní people, rather than only those few currently living on Lot 8, would have rights over the land.

For the tribespeople, the boundaries of logging concessions and even the national borders between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meant nothing – for centuries before European conquerors divided the continent, they had moved freely across those lands. Even now, they regularly up sticks to a new area of forest when they feel nature wants them to do so. How could they prevent, then, other Guaraní coming to Lot 8 if they feel called to do so in the future? On this, the chiefs got their way but, as Laharrague says: "It is a risk. There are three communities of 20-30 people on Lot 8 and we think that in Misiones there are 100 communities, so if they all come there will be too many." That is not to mention the estimated 250,000 Guaraní living across South America, only a small proportion of who are in Argentina. In signing over Lot 8, effectively to all Guaraní people, Laharrague and FuNaFu would be gambling to some degree with its future as an almost uninhabited sanctuary for flora and fauna.

Gradually, though, the lesson of Jiménez's plastic toys prevailed. However divergent the aims of those round his table, they shared bigger common enemies in the form of illegal hunters and the encroachment of house-building and farming from both Argentina and neighbouring Brazil. Whether in order to defend an ancient human way of life or to save a vital wild habitat, all sides could agree on the need to preserve Lot 8 in its rainforest state.

"When we saw their list of what they required for the land it was more comprehensive than most conservationists would want," says Burton, although after a lifetime of protecting wildlife he has had to swallow a bitter pill in agreeing to let the Guaraní continue hunting with snares, spears and other methods that may be traditional but many would consider cruel. "People have talked about this internationally before but not actually done it, where the indigenous groups have a degree of responsibility for management."

Eventually, late into the April night before 11 government ministers were due to attend a signing ceremony at the provincial governor's office, a deal was done. Jiménez was, by his own admission, in tears as the Guaraní signed up to manage Lot 8 for conservation in partnership with FuNaFu, with cooperation from Laharrague, in return for the thing their people had sought for long years: the title deeds to the land they called home.f

This was undoubtedly a huge victory in practice for the Guaraní, although some in the indigenous-rights movement would argue that they were forced to compromise in order to secure what was theirs by right. It represented a good deal for Laharrague, who will, in due course, receive almost $1 million (£623,000) for Lot 8 while keeping some of the most picturesque part for his own eco-tourism business. And although FuNaFu has given most of its ownership rights away to the Guaraní despite forking out a six-figure sum (provided by WLT), this deal is, Burton believes, "probably the most important land purchase the WLT will ever make, because of the innovations involved and the wealth of biodiversity it protects".

The Argentinian authorities are happy, too. From a cynical perspective, that is unsurprising. Indigenous voices in Argentina are beginning to get louder in demanding their land – land which in law is owned by others – and the government could not possibly settle all these disputes with financial compensation or otherwise, even if it wanted to. The willingness of a foreign charity to hand over a large sum of cash has, in that context, resolved one of many potential headaches without tying the government to any precedent that would be dangerous for it. But there is genuine enthusiasm for this partnership there too, within Misiones' Ministry of Ecology at least. "This alliance is unique," says Viviana Rovira, Minister of Ecology. "I don't think in the world there is another like us."

However, one obstacle remained. Argentine law required some form of road on to Lot 8, the route of which had to be decided upon before the deeds could officially be transferred to the Guaraní. They objected to the government's preferred route on the grounds that it ran too close to their communities – a sign of their continued reluctance to engage with white Argentinian society any more than is absolutely necessary. It would be five months after the original deal before a line would be drawn in pen across a printed-out map of Lot 8 and adorned, at the Hotel Urbano on 23 September, with the signatures that meant the transfer could finally go through.

"The baby was born," remarked a pleased but weary Castelli after adding his name, before wandering away to the hotel's almost-closed restaurant, at nearly 1am, for a belated dinner. Rovira was more ebullient. "This is what we have been working towards for so long, them too," she said, nodding to where Artemio and a second chief, Lidio da Silva, remained sitting, quietly out of place, on leatherette seats. "It's too good. I am very happy."

The next day, Artemio and Lidio, along with Lot 8's third chief, Augustí* Espindola, were home, on Lot 8. They remained softly spoken and reserved, but looked more at ease than they had in the hotel lobby, as they talked about the future. One idea was repeated above all others: security. "I feel that all the years that have passed fighting and discussing have passed now," says Benitez. "This earth, this forest has always been ours, our source of food, life for our children. To recover the title for them is a huge happiness. We are very happy that this forest will stay permanently for us and our children."

There is still much work to be done. Questions remain about the future of Lot 8. Illegal hunting on the land continues – the tribespeople say sometimes by men in the uniforms of Argentinian police – and the government has yet to provide sufficient rangers to stop it. Until the issue of illegal hunting is resolved, the Guaraní will remain frightened of white men in the forest and suspicious of the authorities' commitment to protecting them. Joint management of the land as a conservation zone will also be, in Laharrague's words, "an experience, a challenge", especially once Jiménez, the hardworking honest broker, departs the scene. All sides say that the negotiation process has built trust between them, but the relationship between the Guaraní and their white advocates in one corner and FuNaFu, Laharrague and the government in the others remains cagey. And will future generations of Guaraní be content to live only the traditional life that this deal provides for?

The Guaraní's fight, meanwhile, is far broader than this patch of land. Not everyone is convinced that the model of Lot 8 will ultimately achieve much in the context of institutional failure by South American governments to properly address the plight of their indigenous groups. "The uncontrolled and illegal deforestation of Guaraní land which has destroyed so much of their territory will not be solved by Western NGOs buying up small fragments of land – the problem is far too big for that," said Jonathan Mazower, Head of Media and Advocacy at Survival International, an NGO that works for tribal peoples' rights. "Only if the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil are prepared to confront the powerful farming and ranching lobby and actually decide to uphold their own laws," he said, "will the Guaraní stand any chance of surviving into the 22nd century."

And for the World Land Trust and FuNaFu, the battle to protect more of the last Atlantic rainforest continues. Their sights are now set on other parcels of land in the immediate area, including Lots 6 and 7, owned by the Laharragues' business partners. Together with Lot 8, they would fully connect Argentina's Esmeraldas Provincial Park with the Brazilian Parque do Turvo across the river, forming the largest conservation area in the southern Atlantic rainforest. The growing, if still limited, strength of the indigenous rights movement, and the success of the Lot 8 deal, should help them in that task. Indigenous claims are making it harder for affected owners to exploit their land for profit, and for some, a solution like that of Lot 8 is already beginning to look like an attractive way out.

Despite soaring prices across South America, this means that the conservationists have a better chance of securing the land for a price that they can conceivably meet. They're a long way from the Land without Evil yet, but by fighting for their own rights, it may be that the Guaraní of Misiones do indeed become the guardians of the forest once again, only this time with a little help. Benitez, for one, has his sights on that role. "This is only one part of our territory," he says of Lot 8, urging on Burton and co to replicate their deal with other Guaraní. "I feel responsible for the other communities because they don't have this chance to speak with white people, but I have the responsibility of my brothers to protect their land, because their land is all of our land."

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