How the indigenous communities in northern Argentina resist the aggressive push of mining companies and hold on to their old culture.
As mega-mining corporations and major landowners push to takeover their lands and resources, the indigenous communities in the north of Argentina have been responding with both resilience and an extraordinary resistance to maintain their way of life.
Jujuy, the most northern province of Argentina, which is bordered by Chile and Bolivia, is home to the largest number of state-recognised autonomous indigenous communities in the country – more than 180. While state recognition places the communities in better areas than in other parts of the country, the reality of Jujuy’s social, political and economic environment does exactly the opposite.
Jujuy, especially in its power structures, has a conservative, racist and feudal society, and the indigenous, which make up more than 75,000 people in the communities, but actually compose at least 50 percent of the population if race is taken into account, have had to deal with this society from the beginning of the colonisation of America until the present.
In the early 1930s, mining enterprises were introduced, and for the indigenous people, this meant a drastic change in their way of living. The small colonial villages of the Puna, and their simple ways of life were mostly modified by digging and shoveling for the mining companies. By the 1950s, foundries were built in towns such as Palpala and Abra Pampa. Rocks from the mines started to be processed and molten to extract lead, silver, sulfur and other metals, with no regard paid to the contamination involved in these processes.
After it closed in the 1980s, a mining company named Metal Huasi left more than 60,000 tonnes of processed and unprocessed lead and other minerals behind, literally in the middle of the town. The contamination resulted in 80 percent of children in Abra Pampa having lead in their bloodstreams, as proven by blood tests conducted by the government in the early 2000s.
While the authorities removed these toxic mineral remains by 2010, no one paid attention to those affected by lead poisoning and the diseases related to it. From spontaneous abortions, to birth defects and malformations, blindness, retardation, saturnism, lung, kidney and digestive problems, to high rates of cancer, no one ever even received aspirin, not to mention specific treatments for lead poisoning.
The origin of the name Kolla comes from the Spanish-isation of the Quechua word “Qullasuyo,” which was the name of the southern province of the Inca empire, that extended from the north of present-day Bolivia, all the way down to the northern centre of current Argentina.
The inhabitants of this province are located in Kolla, and the faces of the population in Jujuy today indicate that they are mostly still there. But this doesn’t mean that the Kolla culture and traditions have been maintained. Only small parts – even in the indigenous communities – of the population speak Quechua. Most of them are strict Catholics.
In 2003, the Quebrada de Humahuaca was named a UNESCO heritage site. This gave a major touristic boom to the towns of La Puna, like Tilcara, Purmamarca and Humahuaca.
But this growth, like most of the changes that these populations had seen before, was mainly capitalised by Jujuy’s elites and foreigners from other parts of Argentina and abroad, attracted by the beauty and rawness of its landscapes. Like in many other places of the world, the indigenous people were made part of that attraction, showcasing them as an exotic brand.
In light of using the indigenous communities for economic gains, the government began to acknowledge their presence and culture.
This eventually led communities to organise, access legal avenues, gain ownership of their lands, and receive some funds to preserve the Quechua language and traditions. But it also brought a whole new set of conflicts, besides re-igniting the old ones. From disputed lands with private landowners – that operated with the agreement of judicial and political power – to the government-backed mining enterprises wanting to extract resources on their territories, the indigenous communities faced hostilities from all sides.
Although the Kolla people couldn't escape exploitation, they learned to be resilient.
The current conflict in the Guayatayoc Lake and Salinas Grandes is a perfect example of this fragile situation. The Jujuy government, which by national law owns the natural resources, launched bids to extract lithium and other minerals in these areas, which are home to more than 30 indigenous communities. In a regional assembly in February this year, the communities denounced the the provincial government's call for bids.
This area is part of the famous "Lithium Triangle,” which holds 60 percent of the planet’s lithium resources, and has been regarded as an investment hotspot by influential business magazines like Fortune. As the stakes get higher, the indigenous people are no longer willing to submit to the will of the government or big mining companies. They only hope to live along with their traditions and exude confidence in confronting "greedy" capitalists, consumer-based and individualist mainstream culture and its needs.