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Mapuche challenge Benetton once again

LA PAZ, Bolivia - When Rosa Rua Nahuelquir moved with Atilio Curinanco onto a plot of Argentine land called Santa Rosa, she didn't expect to start a four-and-a-half-year battle with clothing giant United Colors of Benetton.

Now the evicted Mapuche woman has returned to Santa Rosa, with 30 other Mapuche. This time the Mapuche say they are there to stay.

On Feb. 14, men, women and children from the surrounding region climbed onto trucks and hitched rides at dawn to the 17- acre plot, planting flags and setting up tents.

''We have returned to our ancestral territory to keep developing the philosophy of life that our ancestors have left us,'' they said in a declaration released after the occupation.

On Feb. 18, an arts festival brought Mapuche and non-Mapuche together.

''This was beyond our expectations,'' Mapuche spokesman Mauro Millan said after the festival. ''The response from the people has been incredible; so many have showed up.''

Nahuelquir said the group was planning to first build a community center and then houses for each family.

''My eldest son is asking that we live in peace here,'' she told reporters from Indymedia.

Benetton has not issued a statement and did not return requests for an interview.

A Feb. 21 article in the Argentine paper La Jornada reported that Benetton had reversed its original decision to evict the group.

Curinanco and Nahuelquir sparked the conflict with Benetton when they moved onto the land in August 2002, after being told by the Argentine government that the plot was ''public land'' - which in Argentina means anyone can stake a claim. But Benetton informed them the land was theirs and had them evicted the following October. Mapuche and non-Mapuche rallied in favor of the couple, and Mapuche delegations went to Italy to meet with Benetton. However, in June 2004, the Argentine government ruled against the couple.

The clothing company claimed they got stuck in the middle of the real war, which was between the Argentine government and the Mapuche. Historic evidence certainly supported their claim.

During the 19th century Desert War, which pitted the Argentine government against the Mapuche, thousands of Mapuche lost their lives.

But by the 1980s, the Mapuche in both Chile and Argentina were undergoing a cultural and political renaissance of sorts. Mapuche flags and community centers began to sprout in the pine-covered mountains, coasts and pampas that had been Mapuche territory. Cries of ''marici wei'' (''victory a thousand times'') rang out on both sides of the Andes.

By the time Curinanco and Nahuelquir left the nearby town of Esquel for what they thought would be a better life in Santa Rosa, the Mapuche had gained political experience battling oil, logging and tourist companies in Chile and Argentina. They had sharpened a variety of weapons - lawsuits, alliances with European indigenous groups like the Catalans and the Basques, demonstrations and hunger strikes. When they had to, they did it the old-fashioned way - encircling their territory on horseback and lobbing stones from the leather boleadoras they swung over their heads when armed police attempted to make more room for the multinationals.

They were met with imprisonment, eviction and death.

Oil was spilled, water contaminated and children sickened. The Mapuche of one Argentine community brought a $445 million lawsuit against the Spanish oil company Repsol for environmental contamination and health damage after they were no longer able to drink their own water.

Most of these battles were fought ''in the dark,'' as far as world publicity was concerned.

Then along came the Benetton eviction notice. The Italian company is currently one of the largest landowners in Argentina, with 2.2 million acres of land, most of it devoted to cattle and sheep farming.

Benetton had won its high-profile image through an artful advertising campaign using photographs of people of all races posing together.

While it worked through the court system to evict the Mapuche, it also tried hard to maintain its progressive image despite increasing adverse publicity.

The issue was further exacerbated by the eviction of a nearby community of eight families to make way for a tourist museum planned by Benetton.

Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel assisted the Mapuche by writing letters on their behalf to Benetton. In 2004, the company offered 2,500 hectares of land in another region to the Mapuche but the Mapuche refused the offer, saying the land offered was not productive.

They wanted to stay in Santa Rosa.

By now it wasn't just a question of one Mapuche couple who wanted to make a better life for themselves; it was a call from the ancestors.

''Santa Rosa wakes up the search for historical truth,'' said one recent Mapuche communique. ''Santa Rosa has seen decades of dispossession, of violence, of intolerance, of usurpation, of disappearance, of death. The men and women who walked freely on this land now lie in museum glass, their sacred instruments are exhibit pieces, silenced by the force that now makes them trophies of a culture that destroys anything different: philosophies, spiritualities, ideologies, people. Nevertheless, the footprints left by these ancient ones are inspirational. We are the consequence of these footprints. We will continue to be Mapuche and we have the responsibility and the necessity to reveal historic truth.''

The Mapuches' confrontation with Benetton over Santa Rosa is not the only battle being fought on the land where their ancestors once walked. In Chile, Mapuche are being tried as terrorists and state police are routinely denounced by the Mapuche for brutality against them. Argentine Mapuche continue to clash with oil companies and tourist developers.

Increasingly, the spectacularly beautiful Patagonian land is being bought up by wealthy foreign individuals like Ted Turner, who owns over 100,000 acres, and Ward Lay (of Frito-Lay), who runs a hunting and fishing resort on 200,000 acres.

On their recently occupied 17 acres, the Mapuche have asked their neighbors for donations of wood, nails and other material to help build the houses and the community center of the new community they have named Santa Rosa-Leleque.

This new community, Millan said, would be important for both Mapuche and non-Mapuche. ''We are not going to have a community here that is going to be divided by barbed wire. On the contrary, we want it to be open to the general society.

''Today we are starting a new story,'' he said during the arts festival. ''I mean everyone, not just us. This is wonderful. Even the wind seems to be blowing in this direction.''