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The privatization of Patagonia


‘If we don’t stop this intrusion we will live in exile in our own land,’ says Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his struggle to defend human rights in Argentina. He is now worried about the impact on the country’s indigenous peoples of massive sales of land in Patagonia.

His fears are well founded. In the 1990s Argentina privatized almost every public asset and became the International Monetary Fund’s model student. Now investors have started to diversify, buying thousands of hectares of land that contain not only native peoples’ memory and ancient woodlands but also lakes and rivers with some of the purest water on the planet.

In the last 15 years, clothing magnate Luciano Benetton has bought 900,000 hectares – equivalent to half the area of Wales. CNN’s Ted Turner was more modest and acquired a mere 55,000 hectares. Joseph Lewis, based in Barbados, was satisfied with even less: 14,000 hectares. Douglas Tompkins, founder of the North Face apparel company and a self-proclaimed ‘environmentalist’, got 800,000 hectares in Chile and Argentina. Some of his lands surround the largest freshwater river in Patagonia.

El Bolsón, a town that used to be the destination of choice for Argentinean hippies, has become a place where young backpackers drink mate in the handicraft fair while dozens of real-estate agents and financial advisors offer uninhabited, virgin lands and exclusive access to green and blue lakes.

‘The land was given away as a gift,’ says Marta Maffei, an opposition leader and the former Vice-President of the Parliamentary Committee for Natural Resources and Human Environment Conservation. ‘The State was auctioned off, while national companies and lands were sold at a bargain price. Our country has extremely flexible laws and inefficient government control. Some economic groups have got enormous properties for nothing. They have come here to do easy business.’

For the Spanish conquerors, South America ended at the Patagonian border. Travelling in this region, the homeland of indigenous peoples, was considered dangerous. Even after independence the southern frontier was almost impassable. ‘The Indian problem,’ as it was called by the estanciero (rancher) oligarchy that dominated politics from Buenos Aires, was one of the few obstacles to building the European-style state they had in mind.

In 1878 General Julio Roca, using British money and an army equipped with Remington repeating rifles, headed for Patagonia in what was euphemistically called the ‘Conquest of the Desert’. The indigenous peoples, ancestral inhabitants of this ‘desert’, could not resist Roca’s army and were forced to retreat. Many died. In 1882 the Argentinean Embassies in Paris and London duly began to sell new estancias as large as 40,000 hectares. 

That was the first privatization of Patagonia – it was not to be the last. Until 1989, when Carlos Menem became President, the Government had some degree of control. Since then official policy has been to welcome foreign investment of any kind as the best means of achieving economic development. The extranjerización (‘foreignization’) of land accelerated at a dizzy pace.

‘In Argentina there is no property register of fiscal [public] land,’ warns Pérez Esquivel. The boundaries between private and public property are ‘wire fences that walk, fences that estancieros put up wherever they want, and say: “This is mine. Period!”’

Following the 2001 economic collapse, the 300-per-cent devaluation of the currency and the bankruptcy of thousands of small landowners that followed, the price of land in Argentina fell sharply. Foreign investors were quick to take advantage of one of the weakest land regimes in Latin America.

In the last 15 years, clothing magnate Luciano Benetton has bought 900,000 hectares – equivalent to half the area of Wales

According to the Constitution, indigenous peoples are the legitimate owners of the southern lands where their ancestors were born. ‘There is sort of an unwritten law that says property rights are above all other rights,’ comments Maffei. In 2004 she presented a Bill to Parliament aimed at halting further evictions of indigenous peoples. Even though the laws protecting them have been renewed, judges in the courts still act as if their rights did not exist. ‘Neither the Constitution nor the laws are respected in Argentina and, because of that, land continues to be sold with Indians on it,’ says Maffei.

Judicial rulings invariably privilege big estancieros. ‘The police are allowed to evict indigenous people by force and with absolute impunity,’ says Pérez Esquivel.

He intervened directly in one dispute. In 2002 Rosa Nahuelquir and Atilio Curiñanco made a formal request to reclaim the land where they and their ancestors were born, in a Mapuche community in the province of Chubut. The land is now owned by Benetton, the biggest landowner in Patagonia.

After waiting several months for a response, Rosa and Atilio decided to occupy 385 hectares on which to build a house, sow crops and raise animals. Atilio recalls that he wanted to ‘go back to the place where I was born, because my family, my mother, my father, spent their whole lives there. I wanted to return to that place too’.

But his return did not last long. Ten days later the police evicted Rosa and Atilio following an order from a provincial judge, who based his verdict on a title deed issued in 1886. That had been acquired by a British company after the Conquest of the Desert.

Atilio and Rosa feel that they belong to their land – but they do not have any title deed to prove it. In 2004 Pérez Esquivel published an open letter that read: ‘Mr Benetton… I would like to inform you that the people from whom you took 385 hectares of land, with the complicity of an unfair judge and using the weapons of money, are a humble Mapuche family with their own identity, with a heart and life that are fighting for their rights… You act with the same mentality as the conquerors.’

Luciano Benetton, worried about the impact that these words might have on his image as a ‘United Colours’ entrepreneur, announced that he would offer Pérez Esquivel 2,500 hectares of land elsewhere in Patagonia. The announcement came two days before a meeting of Nobel Laureates in Rome.

‘I never asked for that land,’ says Pérez Esquivel. He decided not to accept Benetton’s ‘gift’, arguing that the land had always belonged to the Mapuche community and that he did not have any right to act in their name.

Soon afterwards, Pérez Esquivel, Atilio and Rosa met with Benetton in Rome. Benetton rejected any possibility of giving up his rights to the 385 hectares of occupied land, so the Mapuche couple rejected the offer of the other 2,500 hectares and returned to Argentina.

‘Benetton says that he uses the land claimed by the Curiñancos to raise his sheep,’ Pérez Esquivel now recalls in the Buenos Aires office of his Foundation. In October 2005 Benetton, the multicultural entrepreneur, raised his offer to 7,500 hectares on another estancia he owns in the province of Chubut, but repeated that the Curiñancos’ ancestral land was non-negotiable.

For the Mapuche the location of land is very important. Claudia Briones, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires, clarifies the point. ‘The best way to understand the deep meaning that land has in Mapuche culture is to say “not only”. For Mapuches, land is “not only” the ground, it is “not only” a means of production and it is “not only” the material reality that one knows, because land has its own spiritual or supernatural forces – nehuenes.’

For Rosa and Atilio, as for thousands of displaced indigenous people, land is not just about a plot on which to plant pine trees, raise animals and find a way out of poverty. More importantly, it means returning to their origins and meeting again the nehuenes which Benetton has not yet been able to understand.

The degree of incomprehension is such that the new landowners have resorted to symbolic acts verging on the absurd. In 1997 the Benetton Group invested $800,000 in the Leleque Museum, which ‘narrates 13,000 years of history and culture in a mythical land’. Ana Ramos, from the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, says the museum’s narrative describes the arrival of foreigners after the Conquest of the Desert as ‘The Age of Progress’. ‘It presents the Mapuche as invaders who came from Chile,’ says Ramos, ‘and thus indirectly tells the visitor that there are no legitimate indigenous people.’

Rosa and Atilio are still waiting for their little plot to be given back. Their story is just one among many that tell of police evictions, absent entrepreneurs and deaf judges. Most lawsuits ignore indigenous rights, and most estancieros – unlike Benetton – feel no need to cultivate a global image of tolerance.

The conflict is just one aspect of a much deeper process that affects this land of blue lakes and transparent rivers, endless plateaus, snow-capped mountains and thousands of kilometres without a trace of human beings.

Mining, commercial forestry and oil exploration have all been adding to the despoliation of this place. A relatively new issue has now joined this familiar litany of destruction.

‘Generally speaking, the sale [of Patagonian land] relates to a desire to control water sources or lakes,’ says Marta Maffei. She and other legislators were detained by private, armed security guards employed by Joseph Lewis when they tried to access Lago Escondido across his private land – even though the lake itself is formally in public ownership.

The Patagonian problem reveals how private property is invading public space. Can one person have exclusive access to freshwater rivers? Can a lake or an ancient woodland be inherited like a bank account? Can indigenous people’s memory and identity be privatized?

Politics can still provide answers. Just as there was once a consensus of the powerful in favour of privatization, so in Argentina today, after the 2001 collapse – the worst crisis in the country’s history – it is much more possible to articulate an alternative discourse; one where native cultures and land resources prevail over speculative investors and individualistic environmentalism.

*Tomás Bril Mascarenhas* is an Undergraduate Research Fellow at the University of Buenos Aires, where he is carrying out a project on the transformation of politics in Argentina’s capital district. He is an undergraduate teaching assistant at the Department of Political Science and a former volunteer with the New Internationalist.

  1. Mario Rapoport (ed.), Historia económica, política y social de la Argentina (1880-2000), Ediciones Macchi, Buenos Aires, 2003.
  2. Pv Weche Lafkenche, ‘Entrevista a Rosa y Atilio: “Así debe ser...”’, 27 May 2004. See
  3. To read the correspondence between Luciano Benetton and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, visit the Patagonia Talk section of Benetton’s site
  4. See:

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