• Indigenous peoples in Argentina

    Indigenous peoples in Argentina

    The most recent national census in 2010 gave a total of 955,032 people self-identifying as descended from or belonging to an indigenous peoples' group.
  • Peoples

    There are 35 different officially-recognised indigenous peoples. They legally hold specific constitutional rights at federal level and in various provincial states.
  • Rights

    ILO Convention 169 and other universal human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are of constitutional force in the country. Argentina voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Challenges

    The tensions and conflicts over indigenous peoples’ land claims worsened in 2017. The State of Argentina failed to guarantee and enforce indigenous rights over land, and moreover, criminalised the members of indigenous communities who called out for this failure.

Indigenous peoples in Argentina

Their territories expropriated over decades and their chiefs militarily defeated, the indigenous nations were incorporated as subjugated peoples and insecure occupiers of their own lands; they were forced to adopt a foreign religion and way of life. Their autonomous socio-economic systems were destroyed and, ever since, they have been subordinated to the processes of capitalist expansion and contraction, despite the fact that their food security depends more on hunting, fishing, gathering and small crop-growing in the north and sheep and cattle rearing in the south.

Many Argentinians believe there are no indigenous people in their country, either because the majority have died out or are on the verge of doing so, or because "their descendants" were assimilated into Western civilisation long ago and they now live like any other citizen. Generalised stereotypes have forced many indigenous people to defensively hide their identity in order to avoid being subjected to racial discrimination. Even so, the use of pejorative terms likening the Indians/indigenous to lazy, idle, dirty, ignorant and savage are common in everyday language.

This section contains the following information about the indigenous peoples in Argentina:

The indigenous groups
National Indigenous Census
Language
Religion
The situation of the rural communities
The indigenous movement and its organisations

The indigenous groups

The approximate distribution of the different peoples is given below:

North-east Region: provinces of Chaco, Entre Ríos, Formosa, Misiones, Santa Fe, Santiago del Estero. Peoples: Charrúa, Lule, Mbya-Guaraní, Mocoví, Pilagá, Toba, Tonocoté, Vilela, Wichí.

North-west Region: provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy, La Rioja, Salta, San Juan, Santiago del Estero, Tucumán. Peoples: Atacama, Avá-Guaraní, Chané, Chorote, Chulupí, Diaguita-Calchaquí, Kolla, Ocloya, Omaguaca, Tapiete, Toba, Tupí-Guaraní, Wichí.

South Region: provinces of Chubut, Neuquén, Santa Cruz, Tierra del Fuego. Peoples: Mapuche, Ona, Tehuelche, Yamana.

Central Region: Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, La Pampa, Mendoza. Peoples: Atacama, Avá Guaraní, Diaguita-Calchaquí, Huarpe, Kolla, Mapuche, Rankulche, Toba, Tupí Guaraní, Comechingon.

Most indigenous peoples live in rural communities, and represent between 3 and 5% of the country's total population. In some provinces, the indigenous population accounts for between 17 and 25% of the population. The growing impoverishment of their lands, particularly in the highlands, has led to significant migration to the cities. There are no figures on how many indigenous people live in urban areas although information from indigenous organisations suggests that their proportion is high in some provincial capitals such as, for example, Neuquén. However, proportionately, Buenos Aires (state capital) and its area of influence is home to the greatest number of indigenous people in the country.

National Indigenous Census

In 2001, a survey was undertaken of households with at least one member recognising him or herself as belonging to or descending from an indigenous people. This survey was challenged by indigenous people because they felt they had not been involved in it and nor had they had any control over its design. In 2004, a Complementary Indigenous Survey was undertaken with indigenous people involved in the design and data gathering. Although the processing has not been completed, the table provides recent information.

PEOPLE

PROVINCE

HOUSEHOLDS

Mapuche

Chubut, Neuquén, Rio Negro
and Tierra del Fuego

 

76,606

Kolla

Jujuy and Salta

53,019

Toba

Chaco, Formosa and Santa Fe

47,591

Wichí

Chaco, Formosa and Salta

36,135

Ava Guarani;
Guarani; Tupi
Guarani

Jujuy and Salta

29,703

Ava Guarani;
Guarani; Tupi
Guarani

Buenos Aires and the 24
administrative districts of
Greater Buenos Aires

20,340

Toba

Buenos Aires and the 24
administrative districts of
Greater Buenos Aires

14,456

Diaguita
Calchaquí

Jujuy, Salta and Tucumán

13,773

Huarpe

Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis

12,704

TOTAL

 

383,132

Language

Many indigenous peoples speak their native languages, with a significant proportion of monolingualism among them. Among those who were forced to migrate to the cities, primarily around the middle of the last century, there has however been a gradual loss of their mother tongue, such that the children - and the younger generation in general - no longer know their own language. Bilingual and intercultural education has been promoted for some years now, but there is no federal system enabling its effective implementation.

Religion

All the native peoples maintain their ancestral beliefs, despite having been subjected to a variety of evangelizing processes at both the time of the conquest and colonization and to this present day. Some, such as the Kom (Toba) have created their own churches on the basis of a fusion of their own beliefs and the Protestant religion.

The situation of the rural communities

In the central-western Chaco region, which is home to the highest proportion of indigenous peoples (9 different ethnic groups, the majority of whom are hunter/gatherers), the indiscriminate felling of native forest by logging companies and non-indigenous expropriators, along with extensive cattle rearing over open countryside, has caused desertification, soil impoverishment and a loss of biodiversity. Local governments sell state lands to businessmen, who level vast areas to establish farms. This affects the reproductive cycles of the flora and fauna that form the food of indigenous families. The Pilcomayo River, a source of fish for riverine communities, now presents high levels of contamination with mercury and other heavy metals due to spillages in the mining areas of neighbouring countries. State development plans, implemented on indigenous territories with no consultation, alter their areas of traditional use, increasing malnutrition and poverty.

In the central-south region, the Mapuche, Teheulche and Rankulche peoples are faced with the permanent invasion and theft of their lands. Among the region's landowners and traders, the practice of "moving the fences at night" is common. Local governments offer and sell state lands with indigenous communities or families still on them. In recent years, the interest of some multinational corporations in Patagonian lands has been putting pressure on small local producers who, squeezed by a declining sheep market, sell their ranches and estates to them, reducing the possibility of the indigenous recovering their territories yet further. And indigenous people benefit little from the employment created by newly-established agroindustries, given that their ties with the labour market are insecure, unstable or virtually non-existent.

Another serious problem facing the region's communities is oil contamination. In some regions the water table is being contaminated with hydrocarbons, making it impossible to use the water. Indigenous people, particularly children and the elderly, are presenting unacceptably high levels of lead and mercury in their blood.

The indigenous movement and its organisations

There are various levels of indigenous organisation in Argentina. Those living in rural communities recognise a chief or head of group as their authority, generically called 'cacique' in Spanish but niyat, lonko, mburuvicha, etc. in the respective indigenous languages. Sometimes these chiefs are assisted by a council or commission responsible for analysing issues of importance to the group and issuing a qualified opinion. There are also authorities with a specific responsibility or competence, generally copied from non-indigenous systems of organisation: neighbourhood associations, development committees, church, school, health committees etc. The decision-making mechanism is exclusive to each group, with decisions often being taken by consensus in community assemblies. Depending on the circumstances, others are chosen by elected delegates to perform some activity or management task on behalf of the group.

In addition to these authorities, the communities usually create higher level bodies to administer and manage issues of strategic importance. These may be assemblies made up of legitimate grassroots representatives (caciques, lonkos, niyat, mburuvicha). For example, the Lhaka Honat Association of Native Communities is an association of 43 communities from the Salta Chaco, the Mapuche Neuquén Federation is made up of Lonkos from communities in this province, the India Quilmes Community of Amaicha del Valle is made up of various grassroots communities, the Kolla Tinkunaku Community is made up of four communities, the Guaraní People’s Assembly comprises all of this people's communities in Jujuy province, the Pilagá Federation groups together this people's communities in Formosa province, and the Interwichí comprises Wichí communities in the same province. The urban or suburban communities that have come about through internal migration also appoint their authorities and form associations linking them, for example, the Toba People's Council in Buenos Aires.

Like other groups in society, they also create organisations for specific purposes: for media purposes and for disseminating indigenous culture, defending their rights, self-help, etc. Among these are the Council for Aboriginal Events, the Commission of Indigenous Jurists of the Argentine Republic, the Community of Students of the First Nations of America (CEPNA), the Indigenous Association of the Argentine Republic (AIRA), the Association of Indigenous Communities (ACOIN) and the Mapuche Communications Team of the Río Negro, made up of Mapuche youth. Unlike the previous organisations, these latter represent only the interests of their members and cannot be taken as spokespersons or delegates of other organisational levels, which have their own mechanisms of government.

Some countries have confederations representing all the indigenous people within their borders but such an organisation does not exist in Argentina. This aspect is of great importance and must be borne in mind when deciding who to consult with, or who the legitimate indigenous spokespeople are in relation to any public or private decision-making body.

The absence of a single organisation representing all of Argentina's indigenous peoples has not been an obstacle to organising joint meetings for the purposes of promoting their cultural, political and economic interests. The 1990s bore witness to a number of these meetings, one of the results of which was the constitutional reforms. Another and no lesser result, however, was the realisation that they form a sector set apart from the rest of society, united by historic experiences of subjugation but also by shared aspirations and projects: land titling, recognition of their legitimate authorities, preservation of their cultural identity. In terms of the practical implementation of indigenous law, the organisations maintain that many State errors, omissions and non-compliances could have been overcome with the direct involvement of those affected.

Lastly, it should be explained that some organisations are proposing the formation of a national supra-organisation, but that this has so far not been achieved. The Indigenous Association of the Argentine Republic (AIRA) was founded in 1975 and the Organisation of Indigenous Nations and Peoples in Argentina (ONPIA) in 2004. There is also an organisation of indigenous lawyers, the Commission of Indigenous Jurists of the Argentine Republic (CJIRA).

About IWGIA

IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Denmark
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

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