Main languages: Spanish, indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), Judaism, indigenous religions
Approximately 955,032 people declare themselves to belong to or be a descendant of one of indigenous peoples. These peoples include Mapuche (205,009), Toba (126,967), Guaraní (105,907), Diaguita (67,410), Kolla (65,066), Quechua (55,493), Wichi/Mataco (50,419), Comechingón (34,546), Huarpe (34,279), Tehuelche (27,813), Mocoví (22,439), Pampa (22,020), Aymara (20,822), Ava Guaraní (17,899), Rankulche (14,860), Charrúa (14,649), Atacama (13,936), Mbyá Guaraní (7,379), Omaguaca (6,873), Pilaga (5,137), Tonocote (4,853), Lule (3,721), Tupí Guaraní (3,715), Querandí (3,658), Chané (3,034), Sanavirón (2,871), Ona (2,761), Chorote (2,270), Maimará (1,899), Chulupi (1,100), Vilela (519) and Tapiete (407). They now live mainly on the country’s northern and western fringes. According to the National Census of 2010, 3.7 per cent of the indigenous population is illiterate, only 52.6 per cent have access to healthcare and 89.7 per cent receive a state pension.
Other minorities include Jews, who are largely based in Buenos Aires (200,000, according to the World Jewish Congress), Japanese, Koreans, Welsh and small Arab and Asian populations.
Argentina also has a small but politically aware Afro-Argentine community, living mainly in Buenos Aires, representing 0.4 per cent of the population (149,493). Africans were trafficked as slaves in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: it is believed that between 1777 and 1812 approximately 72,000 Africans arrived in Buenos Aires and Uruguay. The African community heavily influenced Argentina’s culture, cuisine and what would later evolve to be the tango dance genre. Slavery was abolished in 1813, but the African population was decimated during the Argentina war against Paraguay in 1865, where most of the soldiers serving were Africans.
Most of the Japanese immigrants and their descendants (totalling around 76,000) are located in and around Buenos Aires. Their situation within Argentine society is relatively better than that of Koreans and other Asian communities, who face discrimination. The Consejo de Representantes Nikkei, an organization representing the Japanese population of Argentina, was created in 1988.
State violence against indigenous communities has become a pressing issue in Argentina. The transition to democracy has not eradicated the legacy of the country’s years under military rule, in particular the period under the junta between 1976 and 1983, when as many as 30,000 civilians were murdered or disappeared by the regime. Arbitrary violence and abuses by security forces persist to this day, with indigenous communities, migrants and other discriminated groups particularly targeted. Police violence against indigenous communities appeared to worsen during the national lockdown imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with reports suggesting that some officials are justifying incidents as measures to impose compliance with the new restrictions. One documented case involved the torture of a Qom family in May 2020 and Río Negro, where Mapuches have been evicted after mobilizing to claim their land rights over Villa Mascardi.
Violence and evictions also continue to be driven by conflicts over indigenous territory, frequently resulting from development on community land. Although Argentina acknowledges indigenous peoples’ communal land ownership, much of their territory has in practice been sold or allocated to foreign enterprises, without the consent of the affected communities, for the extraction of lithium, the construction of new hydroelectric dams or fracking. In the border area between Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, known as the ‘lithium triangle’, lithium extraction was due to begin in 2021 by a joint multinational government venture. The extraction of lithium particularly affects the area of Salinas Grandes, a region long inhabited by indigenous peoples, and currently home to Kollas and Atakameños who have not given their free, prior and informed consent for the extraction to go ahead. At present, 33 indigenous communities have organized themselves into a union and are demanding that the government initiates a consultation process. The case has prompted the International Commission of Jurists to call on the Argentine government to protect the human rights of the indigenous peoples in question.
Other forms of development also threaten to undermine indigenous land rights. For instance, two new Chinese-funded hydroelectric dams are being constructed in Patagonia in a region inhabited by indigenous communities. The dams could destroy archaeological sites, impact the Perito Moreno glacier and change the course of the Santa Cruz river. In addition, the government is seeking to develop the Vaca Muerta region, an oil and shale gas reservoir. Vaca Muerta is in Campo Maribe, where more than 40 Mapuche communities live. Mapuche residents are claiming legal rights on Campo Maribe now that has become the centre for fracking.
Indigenous communities are increasingly resorting to international rights bodies to protect their rights. In 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark judgment in the case of the Lhaka Honhat Association on behalf of its members from the Wichí (Mataco), Iyjwaja (Chorote), Komlek (Toba), Niwackle (Chulupí) and Tapy’y (Tapiete) indigenous communities from Salta. The judgment highlights the state’s obligations to protect indigenous peoples’ economic, social and cultural rights under Article 26 of the American Convention on Human Rights.
Indigenous women have been at the forefront of community activism. In October 2019, for instance, women from different communities including Mapuche, Tehuelche and Qom peacefully occupied the Internal Affairs Ministry in Buenos Aires. The women were protesting forced evictions, the militarization of their lands and police violence. They also emphasized the lack of an environmental policy to address the impacts of climate change and how this was impacting particularly on indigenous women.
Other campaigns have sought to address the endemic problem of sexual violence targeting indigenous women and girls. In 2015, a Wichi indigenous girl with disabilities by the name of Juana was raped by eight white men in Alto La Sierra, in the province of Salta. The crime was framed as a practice called ‘chineo’, where criollos (the designation for white men in Argentina) rape indigenous girls as part of a sexual initiation rite. Juana became pregnant after this incident and was delayed the right to an abortion, resulting in her being inducted and giving birth to a seven-month stillborn. Eight men were tried in February 2019 for the crime against Juana; they were all found guilty and sentenced to 17 years of prison. In March 2020, the Indigenous Women’s Movement started a campaign to eradicate this brutal practice. In June 2020, a Mapuche woman, Verónica Huilipán, was appointed head of a unit within the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity tasked with eradicating gender violence against indigenous women.
Historically, the Argentine state has been unwilling to define a systematic, enduring indigenous federal policy. During the twentieth century state policies swayed from tutelage to integration: they were erratic, continually changing as new governments took power. Between 1912 and 1980 the organisations in charge of indigenous matters received 21 different names and changes of administrative jurisdiction. The first indigenous political organisations (beyond the community) emerged during the 1970s, and became more visible and vocal in the 1980s.
In 1985, as part of the process, Raúl Alfonsín’s government passed a new indigenous law, which stated that indigenous communities should receive sufficient land for their needs and that this land should be protected. It also created the Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas and allowed for bilingual education. In 1994 the Argentine constitution was amended, recognising for the first time the ‘ethnic and cultural pre-existence of the Argentine indigenous peoples’: it acknowledged the validity of Indian communities’ claims to land; it also guaranteed the right of indigenous peoples to bilingual/intercultural education. Since then, Argentina has ratified the ILO Convention 169 (2000). It also created the Instituto Nacional contra la Discriminación, la Xenofobia y Racismo in 1995.
Despite the existence of these constitutional and legal measures designed to protect their rights, indigenous peoples and their lands continue to be threatened by the constant intrusion of investors and private enterprises (encouraged by the state). For this reason, indigenous organisations have been involved in an increasing number of protests in recent years. In 2002 for example, a number of organisations occupied the INAI, denouncing the organisation’s failure to represent indigenous peoples’ interests.
Some past governments have encouraged non-Welsh settlement of the Chubut area; tax incentives brought many non-Welsh enterprises, with whom the still predominantly Welsh agricultural community, which previously functioned as a co-operative, was forced to compete. Break-up of the co-operatives and other community organisations, as well as the lack of Welsh teaching in schools, has meant fewer and fewer people speaking the language. Furthermore, since it is associated with low status Welsh has often been rejected by younger members of the community. However, Welsh people suffer minimal ethnic discrimination and token support is given to demonstrations of ethnicity such as their annual eisteddfod.
In the post-war period Argentina became an international centre for anti-Semitic publications and neo-Nazi activity. During the military dictatorship of 1976-83, a large number of the disappeared were Jews. In the 1990s Carlos Menem’s government appeared committed to combating anti-Semitism. The car bombing of the Jewish Mutual Society of Argentina in 1994, in which 76 people were killed, provoked demonstrations of solidarity with the Jewish community. Just prior to this (1993), a holocaust museum was founded in Buenos Aires to remember the atrocities committed against Jews in the past.
Most of the 50,000 Japanese immigrants (http://www.janm.org/) and their descendants are located in and around Buenos Aires. Japanese assimilation and acculturation has advanced considerably, while Koreans and other Asian groups are subject to the same kind of racial discrimination as indigenous groups. The Consejo de Representantes Nikkei, an organisation representing the Japanese population of Argentina, was created in 1988.
Argentina is the second largest country in South America. It borders Chile to the west, Bolivia and Paraguay to the north, and Brazil and Uruguay to the east. Indigenous peoples live in many different regions throughout the country; in areas near international borders indigenous organizations proclaim a transnational identity (their own nations having been divided by the frontiers imposed by states in the post-independence era).
The territory of modern-day Argentina was predominantly inhabited by two indigenous peoples: Diaguita (in the northwest of the country, close to the Incan empire) and Guaraní further south and to the east. The ruins of Quilmes, once an urban centre inhabited by around 5,000 Diaguita, is testament to the advanced civilization state of their civilization in the pre-Colombian era.
Although Argentina was colonized by Spain, other European countries, including Britain, played an important role in its development after the conquest. Liberal governments of the mid- to late-nineteenth century greatly encouraged European immigration; by 1914 almost 30 per cent of the Argentine population was foreign born (a great number of the immigrants were from Italy).
More than 1,000 Mapuches were killed during the ‘Conquest of the Desert’, a military campaign led by President Julio Roca from the 1870s until 1884. The campaign extended the state’s domain and power beyond Buenos Aires; its goal was to intrude beyond Chile’s borders as well. Many academics and historians claim that this military expedition was in fact a genocide that targeted indigenous and tribal populations inhabiting the Patagonia region. Survivors were held captive: many were forced into servitude and prevented from having children.
Welsh immigration to the Chubut region in Patagonia took place mainly between 1865 and 1914. Historical conflict over linguistic and political autonomy led to an unsuccessful attempt at secession at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Large-scale Jewish immigration between 1890 and 1930 provoked disapproval from the Roman Catholic Church and led to a pogrom during the ‘Tragic Week’ in 1919. Antisemitism among Argentine elites, particularly the armed forces, derived from French right-wing, Falangist, Fascist and Nazi sources.
Afro-Argentines are descendants of the slaves brought from Africa during the colonial period. By the late eighteenth century, slaves and free blacks accounted for approximately 25-30 per cent of the population in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Tucuman and other cities. Many of them died fighting for Argentina in the Wars of Independence (1810-1816) and the Cisplatine War (1825-1828). Since independence the country’s black population has decreased significantly.
The majority of some 2,000 Japanese who settled in Argentina prior to 1920 were immigrants who had re-emigrated from Brazil, Chile or Peru. Early migrants worked in a variety of occupations as unskilled labourers; they were subsequently employed in laundry and dry-cleaning businesses, or market gardening.
Some past governments encouraged non-Welsh settlement of the Chubut area; tax incentives brought many non-Welsh enterprises, with whom the still predominantly Welsh agricultural community, which previously functioned as a co-operative, was forced to compete. Break-up of the co-operatives and other community organizations, as well as the lack of Welsh teaching in schools, has meant fewer and fewer people speaking the language. Furthermore, since it is associated with low status. Welsh has often been rejected by younger members of the community. However, Welsh people suffer minimal ethnic discrimination and token support is given to demonstrations of ethnicity such as their annual eisteddfod.
In the post- war period, Argentina was ruled by a succession of military dictatorships, including rule by military junta between 1976 and 1983. This period was associated with brutal violence against suspected political opponents or dissidents, with up 30,000 civilians abducted or killed during this period. A disproportionate number were Jewish: one subsequent investigation in the late 1990s found that around 12 per cent of the recorded victims were Jewish, despite making up around 1 percent of the population at the time.
The junta also violently persecuted adults and children with disabilities. In 1979, the Department of Education reset the definition of disability, including a new category of ‘socially disabled’ to signify those who due to their situation or behaviour were not integrating into the ‘normal’ social order.
Adults with physical disabilities were also persecuted, as demonstrated by the case of José Poblete Roa, a wheelchair user and activist for the rights of disabled people. Roa led a group of disabled people within the Peronist Party, fighting for inclusion and better working conditions. Roa, his wife and his eight-month-old daughter were abducted in 1978 and their whereabouts remain unknown.
Indigenous communities were also victims of the junta’s repression. At present, Argentina lacks a proper register of indigenous people who were abducted during 1976-83, but relevant cases such as the abduction of a Mapuche youth called Celestino Aigo testify to the violence of the regime.
The military dictatorship of 1976 laid out the foundations for future conflict with indigenous communities in the north by granting concessions to foreign enterprises to extract lithium. Argentina transitioned to democracy in 1983, after the junta was defeated in the Falklands war in 1982. Some of the key perpetrators were prosecuted and incarcerated in 2003 for crimes against humanity.
In 1989, Carlos Saúl Menem was elected President. His administration was marked by austerity measures that decimated the Argentine working class. Two terrorist attacks against the Jewish community took place during his first term: an explosion at the Israeli embassy in 1992, which killed 22 people, and a car bombing of the Jewish Mutual Society of Argentina in 1994, in which 76 people were killed. These attacks provoked demonstrations of solidarity with the Jewish community. Just prior to this, in 1993, a Holocaust museum was founded in Buenos Aires to commemorate the atrocities committed against Jews in the past.
In 1994, a constitutional reform introduced rights for indigenous and tribal communities in Argentina. It recognized the pre-existence of indigenous peoples, and their right to an education, access to healthcare, ownership of their lands and their cultural identity. It also stipulated a legal consultation for any enterprise or business undertaking development on their territories that could affect their wellbeing or their lands.
Menem’s presidency was followed by Fernando de la Rúa. De la Rúa’s term lasted only one year and ended with a curfew and more than 40 citizens killed in protests. Eduardo Duhalde was interim President from 2001 until 2003, before the Kirchnerite era begun. Néstor Kirchner was elected in 2003, and Cristina Kirchner succeeded him from 2007-11 and 2011-15.
Between 2003 and 2015, there were some improvements for indigenous peoples in Argentina, such as better access to health care and education, but police brutality, hunger and poverty remained significant issues. Mauricio Macri’s administration, from 2015 to 2019, witnessed an escalation of the conflict with indigenous communities, with their activism frequently framed as terrorist activity. Patricia Bullrich, the Security Minister, accused the group Mapuche Ancestral Resistance of being sponsored by dubious sources and engaging in terrorism. Macri was succeeded by Alberto Fernández in 2019. Cristina Kirchner returned to high office as Vice-President, although she is currently facing a corruption trial.
Historically, the Argentine state has been unwilling to define a systematic, enduring indigenous federal policy. During the twentieth century state policies swayed from tutelage to integration: they were erratic, continually changing as new governments took power. Between 1912 and 1980 the organizations in charge of indigenous matters received 21 different names and changes of administrative jurisdiction. The first indigenous political organizations (beyond the community) emerged during the 1970s and became more visible and vocal in the 1980s.
In 1985, as part of the process, Raúl Alfonsín’s government passed a new indigenous law, which stated that indigenous communities should receive sufficient land for their needs and that this land should be protected. It also created the Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas (National Institute of Indigenous Affairs, INAI) and allowed for bilingual education. In 1994 the Argentine Constitution was amended, recognising for the first time the ‘ethnic and cultural pre-existence of the Argentine indigenous peoples’: it acknowledged the validity of indigenous communities’ claims to land; it also guaranteed the right of indigenous peoples to bilingual/intercultural education. Since then, Argentina has ratified ILO Convention 169 (2000). It also created the Instituto Nacional contra la Discriminación, la Xenofobia y Racismo (National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism, INADI) in 1995.
In 2002 several organizations occupied the INAI, denouncing the organization’s failure to represent indigenous peoples’ interests. Around the same time, during the interim government of Eduardo Duhalde (2001-2), Law 25.607 was passed by Congress, establishing a national campaign to raise awareness on indigenous rights. This was intended to be a federal campaign led by the INAI. In 2010, during the Nestor Kirchner administration, the National Register of Indigenous Organizations was created through Resolution N 328/ 2010, which documents the legal status of any organization within Argentina representing indigenous peoples. The right of indigenous peoples to inhabit their own lands is determined by the 2006 Law N 26.160. This was intended as an emergency provision to suspend evictions on traditionally occupied indigenous territories while obliging the state to survey all existing lands inhabited by indigenous communities. At present, the state has only surveyed 38 per cent of the lands claimed by indigenous, failing in the proper implementation of this law. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also expressed concerns at the delays in surveying, which at the time of reporting in 2017 had only been concluded in six provinces. Despite the existence of these constitutional and legal measures designed to protect their rights, indigenous peoples and their lands continue to be threatened by the constant intrusion of investors and private enterprises (encouraged by the state). For this reason, indigenous organizations have been involved in an increasing number of protests in recent years.
- Asociación Guadalupe
- Asociación Indígena de la República Argentina
- Consejo Nacional de la Mujer Indígena (CONAMI)
Minority rights and general human rights
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- Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales
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Updated September 2022
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