Since March 7, devastating fires in the provinces of Chubut and Río Negro in Argentine Patagonia have destroyed about 15,000 hectares of forest, causing the deaths of two people, the evacuation of dozens of others and the destruction of over 300 homes.
Many agree that the fires were intentional, indicated by their simultaneous origin in seven localities in the region. However, some say the collapse of a power transformer was the initial cause, together with the unusual high temperatures of recent months, drought and the large number of pine plantations, which are known to be highly flammable.
Moreover, according to the Servicio Nacional de Manejo del Fuego, 95% of forest fires in Argentina are of willful or negligent origin, often related to the expansion of farms or to real estate speculation, particularly aggressive in this region of incalculable beauty.
Yet some politicians have found it easier and more convenient to point the finger at the Mapuche-Tehuelche people, precisely the most unlikely of all possible perpetrators. But they are also the perfect culprit in the eyes of the strong interests at stake in the region, including those in support of the ubiquitous mining extractivism — which the people of Chubut have been fighting against for 18 years.
Former candidate for vice president for the macrismo right, Miguel Ángel Pichetto, without a hint of proof, declared that the culprits were the “terrorists” of the RAM (Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche), who, in his opinion, are “dominating the area.” But he was immediately echoed by Senator Alberto Weretilneck, among others, recommending an “exemplary punishment,” and the former superintendent of El Hoyo Mario Breide, arguing that RAM would “always threaten to set fire to everything.”
The response of the Mapuche people against the “political irresponsibility” of these complaints, however, was not long in coming. “It is we,” said the Coordinator of the Mapuche-Tehuelche en Río Negro Parliament, “who take care of the territory against the voracity of the real estate sector after every fire, who defend the territory from the aims of mining, forestry and hydroelectric companies. How could we burn our forest and our own houses?”
The Unión de Asambleas de Chubut also lined up alongside them, and in a statement denounced the extractivist advance in the territory to the detriment of the forest and its main custodians. “That is why they persecute and murder our Mapuche brothers and sisters. And it is for the same reason that the forest burns: because its subsoil contains enormous mineral wealth.”
To further aggravate the tensions in the region, there was also, last Saturday, the attack in the city of Lago Puelo against President Alberto Fernández, who was visiting the area affected by the fires, as part of a protest by the assembly “No a La Mina Esquel,” against the president’s support for the highly contested pro-mining policy of the governor of Chubut Mariano Arcioni.
The assembly, however, denied any responsibility in the assault. He indicated that those responsible were agents of the provincial police under the orders of the governor, interested in “demonizing, in the eyes of public opinion, the historic and peaceful social resistance to the mining projects of the transnational enterprises in the province of Chubut.” However, it was the demonstrators who ended up in prison, including some teachers.