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Recreational Fishing in Argentina Affecting Indigenous Land Claims

11 June 2009

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Argentina's indigenous communities, including Mapuche, were the victims of extermination campaigns conducted by those seeking to claim their lands. The most notable was the so called Conquest of the Desert (1879) during which La Pampa, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego were incorporated into the Argentine state.

According to the current Argentinean Constitution the country's over 100,000 indigenous Mapuche are the legitimate owners of the lands in Patagonia. Nevertheless large parcels of Patagonia continue to be acquired by local elites and wealthy foreign buyers for personal use or tourism development without any prior consultation.

This policy not only runs counter to local laws and statutes enshrined in treaties such as the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but also clearly demonstrates the link between expansionist economic policies, inadequate preservation of cultural and ecological diversity and the effect of these on the rights of indigenous populations.

The majority of the indigenous Mapuche living in Patagonia do not hold legal title to lands inhabited by their pre-colonial ancestors, and this is now regarded as “publicly-owned property.” As a result indigenous land is frequently sold off to the highest bidder thus creating the underlying conditions for land ownership disputes.

Well-heeled foreigners attracted by the scenic beauty of the barren windswept region have continued to purchase large land holdings ranging from 80,000 to 200,000 acres, prompting protests by indigenous groups who are now increasingly vocal about claiming ancestral lands.

Thousands of visitors now travel every year to Argentina’s southern Patagonia wilderness region to fish in glacial lakes and crystal clear streams and rivers. The trout and salmon introduced into Argentina's waterways in the early 20th century for recreational fishing readily adapted to local conditions, breeding without human intervention. Of the 2,500 tons of fish raised every year in Argentina, 70 percent are trout.

However, in a process that closely mirrors the loss of indigenous lands and the destruction of indigenous cultures by incoming forces bent on economic development, the recently introduced non native trout and salmon that the tourists now go to find are posing an increasingly grave threat to local biodiversity.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), trout are among the world's 100 most damaging invasive species. Once they have adapted to their new environment, they deplete native species. Moreover according to the United Nations, since the 17th century, at least 40 percent of all animal extinctions from known causes have resulted from non native invasive species.

In a statement made to Inter Press Services, Claudio Bertonatti, a member of Argentina’s Fundación Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Foundation) has sounded the alarm about the continuing introduction of non native fish species into Patagonia's lakes and rivers and noted that such measures have led to an alarming decline in Patagonia's bird counts and in some aquatic species, which have long served as food for indigenous people.

According to the UN, besides threatening the natural environmental balance, species incursions like those in Argentina's Patagonia take a significant human toll by aggravating poverty due to their impact on agriculture, forests, fisheries and the natural systems 'that underpin millions of livelihoods in developing countries.'

This is particularly true for the often socially and economically marginal indigenous and minority populations of the Americas who continue to be adversely affected by the historical non-recognition of their sovereignty over communally held lands and natural resources and the continuing tendency of state governments to sideline their concerns in the rush for economic growth.