Sunday, June 26, 2022

OP-ED | 15-02-2020 10:53

Bridging the distance

A major actor compounding the appalling neglect suffered by the Wichi indigenous population is the 1,500 kilometres separating them from the corridors of power in an overcentralised country.

Almost all of last week’s media attention centred on debt-related issues – ranging from the bland Congress appearance of Economy Minister Martín Guzmán on Wednesday, to the much noisier picket demonstration the same day against the arrival of the International Monetary Fund mission, and the controversial comments of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the issue from the distance of Cuba, plus Tuesday’s rescheduling of the AF20 bond. But today’s editorial will highlight an entirely different government initiative potentially more important than any of the above, namely the bill by President Alberto Fernández to create 24 “alternate capitals.”

Most people will view this bill as an irritating distraction or silly headline in times of economic emergency – the more cynical pundits might interpret it as Fernández throwing a bone to the provincial governors backing the presidential wing of his coalition. But what gives what otherwise might be a quaint and abstract plea for decentralisation and federalism some real force is the plight of Salta’s Wichi children, which has recently come to the fore, even if always with us. A major (if not the only) factor compounding the appalling neglect suffered by this indigenous population is the 1,500 kilometres separating them from the corridors of power in an overcentralised country – this bill could be a preliminary step towards bridging that distance.

But before looking closer at the Wichis, a word on the more nationwide potential impact of this bill, with attention to one aspect in particular. All 23 provinces are represented (with a bonus city for the biggest, La Matanza and Mar del Plata in Buenos Aires Province) but it is striking that none of these 24 cities is a provincial capital, save Formosa. In other words, the decentralisation is to be not only national but also provincial. This idea matches a reality of this century – that poverty is already federalised and decentralised. In the past century the poorest provinces like Santiago del Estero also had by far the lowest unemployment rates for the simple reason that their jobless found their way to the outskirts of this metropolis. But this monopoly of slums and shantytowns has long been broken by several provincial capitals (often housing close to half the population via swollen public sectors) and Rosario with comparable levels of poverty and destitution.

The deaths of Wichi children from malnutrition and dirty water (with eight such recent fatalities in the district of TartagaI alone) has become a news splash in recent days, with first a statement from the Church Synod’s aboriginal pastoral work team and then the gesture of media tycoon Marcelo Tinelli to finance 10 new wells in Salta. But, of course, this problem did not start this week, this month, this year or even this century.

The immediate instinct is to throw money at the problem, reducing it to questions like how many millions of pesos should be allocated by social ministries, how much should be raised by charities, how many crates of mineral water should be trucked out to these remote districts, how many wells can be installed by businessmen with money to spare, etc. All this is valuable and should be encouraged but it also clashes with highly vulnerable cultures stretching back thousands of years. There are northern indigenous groups which suck mud as their customary method of hydration and resist breaking the habit. About three decades ago, a Salta chieftain made a news splash when he banned milk in his zone. In the face of such facts, the patronising attitude might be: “These poor, primitive people, how can we help them?” but this is not right either – in a planet facing the ravages of climate change perhaps it is modern civilisation which should be taking lessons from these millenarian nomadic cultures with their profound respect for nature. What right do we have to destroy their way of life, but, at the same time, do these highly traditional cultures with life expectancies historically averaging around 30 years have the right to condemn their children to early deaths and deny them the amenities of modern life? Which is the worse racism – the exclusion of this country’s original inhabitants or the destruction of their culture?

These are all highly complex and often philosophical questions but on one point everybody should agree – the tragic deaths of these neglected Wichi children cannot be forgotten or ignored.

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