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Guarani win bittersweet victory as Seaboard Corp. returns land

AUSTIN, Texas - The U.S.-based Seaboard Corp. returned about 128 acres of land April 9 to a Guarani community in northern Argentina, after three years of litigation, in which 60 families watched sugar cane replace their traditional crops, and community members suffered house burnings and beatings.

In a formal ceremony of a judgment made in favor of the Guarani last September by an Argentine judge, members of the Tupi Guarani community of Iguopeigenda, headed by Gregorio Lopez, carefully encircled the returned land with barbed wire while lawyers, engineers, priests and members of human rights organizations looked on.

Though community members were already preparing the traditional chicha drink that they use in their celebrations, they said they had some work to do on the land after its appropriation by Ingenio y Refineria San Martin del Tabacal, a sugar refinery owned by Seaboard since 1996.

;'There has been some damage to our land that we are still evaluating,'' one community member told the Argentine newspaper Nuevo Diario de Salta, noting that trees had been cut down and part of the land was planted with sugar cane even after the September judgment in the community's favor.

According to reports in the Argentine media, officials from ''El Tabacal'' stayed for part of the ceremony and then left, saying they would send the Guarani topographical maps to make sure their measurements of the roughly 128 acres were accurate.

H. Harry Bresky, former CEO of Seaboard, has said that the land the corporation owns in northern Argentina is ''bigger than the state of Rhode Island.''

An estimated 100,000 acres of this land has been planted with sugar cane.

The Guarani's victory followed another judgment for the Guarani last August, when a regional judge ordered El Tabacal to stop cutting down trees on 5,000 acres of contested land called La Loma.

Bresky and Seaboard lawyers have stated in the past that indigenous land claim issues are the responsibility of the regional governments, not Seaboard.

The Guarani, as well as other indigenous communities in the region, have accused Tabacal of burning down their houses to make room for the sugar cane plantation, and of beating up members of their communities.

In 2006, employees of the U.S. private security firm Search, hired by Tabacal, were arrested for beating a Guarani youth to death for stealing oranges.

A missionary of the Consolata congregation, the Rev. Jose Auletta told the newspaper La Opcion that 40 men armed with short sticks, Molotov cocktails and firearms attacked the Iguopeigenda community in 2004 to get them off their land.

Neither Seaboard, currently run by Steven Bresky, nor El Tabacal has issued a statement about the arrest or the allegations.

After being evicted from their homes by El Tabacal in the 1960s, many Guarani, Kolla and other indigenous peoples of northern Argentina ended up working for the company, with as many as 50 people living in small sheds, paid in tokens that could only be redeemed at the company-owned shop.

When Seaboard bought and modernized El Tabacal, it laid off 6,000 workers, who left the countryside to build crowded shantytowns on the edges of cities.

Land that had held community and private farms of squash, corn and other vegetables was planted with sugar cane, genetically modified soy, oranges and other crops.

Though some Guarani agreed to sell their homes to El Tabacal and accept company jobs, others fought company expansion, traveling hundreds of miles to demonstrate in Buenos Aires, connecting with activists in the U.S. and taking their cases to court.

In 2004, a Seaboard shareholders meeting in Boston was disrupted when North American activists walked in and shared photographs and information, prompting one of the shareholders to respond, ''Well, if it's only a question of land, and we have so much, why can't we just give part of it back to them?''

As El Tabascal executives were watching the Guarani take back their acres in April with a court order and an armful of barbed wire, Seaboard was facing another conflict in the same region as 400 workers, camped out in the El Tabacal factory for a month, demanded back pay and the restitution of workers who had been fired.

Members of the Iguopeigenda community say they are not sure what they are going to do with all the sugar cane on their land.

El Tabacal has offered to provide sugar cane for the chicha drink.