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Italian-owned Benetton Group became the largest landowner in Argentina in 1997 when it bought Compania Tierras del Sur Argentina S.A. and took over 2.2 million acres and 280,000 sheep to produce wool for its international clothing line. Despite advertisements promoting racial harmony and diversity, Benetton made enemies with the native Mapuche population — and this dispute has turned into a lawsuit over property.
Atilio Curinanco and his wife Rosa Nahuelquir requested permission in early 2002 to start a family business on a seventeen acre plot called Santa Rosa in front of one of Benetton’s properties. Because Benetton’s land is well fenced in other areas and Santa Rosa was known among Mapuche to be unoccupied, the family believed the plot was available.
As is customary, the couple contacted the Instituto Autárquico de Colonizacion (IAC), a government-managed real estate agency that tracks whether property is available and notifies prospective landowners of its status. After receiving verbal confirmation from IAC that the land was available, the family moved in and began raising animals and crops.
“We went to the land without harming anyone,” Curiñanco says. “We didn’t cut a fence. We didn’t go at night. We didn’t hide ourselves. We waited for someone to come to let us know if it bothered them.”
Two months later, Benetton claimed the land, and IAC seized the property and the belongings of the Curinanco-Nahuelquir family. Santa Rosa remains unoccupied today as the family seeks to win legal rights to the land. The case, brought by Benetton for land usurpation, opens April 14.
Across the dusty highway from Santa Rosa, other Mapuche are threatened with eviction. In 1992, Benetton purchased land surrounding Leleque, a village of eight families who worked for the Argentinean railroad company loading wool, leather and other goods for transport. In exchange for the land Mapuche had occupied for 13,000 years, Benetton constructed the Leleque museum to “narrate the history and culture of a mythical land.”
A year after Benetton bought the property, however, the railroad station was closed, running water was cut off and police stopped serving the area. A resolution also was passed prohibiting Leleque residents from having animals, and residents were told they had to abandon their houses to make way for a tourist attraction.
The tourist project involves reactivating the railway for guided tours of Patagonia including visits to the Leleque museum, where, according to tourism literature, “one can enjoy a Patagonia asado [Argentine barbeque] at the Benetton estate.”
“Little by little, they have been closing the door on the Leleque community. It’s a very strategic plan,” says Mauro Millan of the Mapuche organization 11 de Octubre — named for the last day before Spanish settlers moved to Argentina 500 years ago — that fights for Mapuche sovereignty.
While the Leleque families remain in their homes waiting to be evicted, they seek ways to sustain themselves in the area. “We have decided that there won’t be any more evictions, from the state or from Benetton,” says Millan.
Benetton, which has 7,000 retail stores in 120 countries, has been involved in controversy before. In addition to progressive advertising campaigns depicting AIDS victims and death row inmates, in the late ’90s a textile plant that produced Benetton clothing in Istanbul was found in violation of Turkish and international laws involving the use of child labor.
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