Reason 5: Follow the Footprints of Indigenous Argentina

Argentina is a multiethnic country, not only because its citizens trace their family history of immigration from all across Europe, but also because there are dozens of distinct native communities living here with family history in southern Latin America that goes back to times well before the arrival of the first Spanish. Perhaps your time spent in this beautiful country could be enriched by engaging more deeply with the diversity of culture found within the native peoples' communities: culture quite different from anything found in Europe today. And there are many ways to do this, regardless of where your particular interest lies...

Although the native communities and their traditional lifestyles are (since 1994)clearly recognised by the Constitution of Argentina[3], their rights and their place in Argentine society are often marginalised by the dominant Western culture and its attendant economic practices. Times are certainly changing for the Pueblos Originarios, who today make up perhaps four percent of the national population. But there are also now movements within Western culture that seek to engage positively and creatively in cultural exchange, promoting awareness on both sides. As Willis Horst (theologian) recently put it, writing about the Gran Chaco, "We no longer seek to eliminate our own or others' uniqueness, but to celebrate it and connect each to the whole."[4]

For cultural exchange to be successful, it's necessary to see the world from the other's perspective as well as one's own, and this requires an investment of time and energy. Back in 1985, volunteers from the Catholic Church in Buenos Aires began to make periodic visits to a few of the indigenous pueblos in the Gran Chaco. As a result, around this time grew interest in arranging cultural exchanges, and different projects and groups were established, putting such meetings on a more organised footing[1]. Some projects aimed specifically to help with development issues, understanding and addressing the causes of poverty, while others focused on education, public awareness and political activism.

But what should "development" look like in context of Argentina's rural indigenous communities? There can be no straightforward answer to such a question, yet it is clear that jobs are scarce for many young people, and the topic of employment opportunities is a good place to start. Small scale agriculture might be one possibility for many communities, but often this is inappropriate when there is no substantial track record (culturally speaking)of farming within the region. An alternative discovered within many communities, at least in recent years, has been to revive and develop the tradition of local artesanry. Old and young alike are able to work with readily available natural raw materials (wood, clay, fibres, natural dyes) to create things of beauty for sale to the "Western world".

Working within a spirit of "pluriculture" and "permaculture", the handicrafts industry provides work of genuine quality, dignified labour for many families. It provides an income easily competitive with the less creative alternative industry of harvesting and shipping raw materials directly.

The NGO Arte y Esperanza (Art and Hope) arose from the Association Promoción Indígena, back in 2001, aiming to promote indigenous Argentine culture, especially by improving the market for handicrafts produced principally in the Gran Chaco but also by other indigenous communities scattered across the country. This NGO operates as a business that seeks no profit of its own, but aims to establish principles of Fair Trade in connecting producer to consumer. Visiting Buenos Aires today, you would find three Arte y Esperanza stores selling a wide variety of sustainably sourced handcrafted goods, traditional motifs blended with modern design concepts to appeal to a broader audience - but behind this front-end are "supply chains of solidarity" that effectively offer social and economic support to more than 500 indigenous families.

If you really want to get to know the roots of Argentina you should take time to look for the imprints that these indigenous peoples have left in the country. Find out more about their lives, their attempts to integrate into modern society, the ongoing conflicts faced by native communities - so
that you can be a voice and a witness for them. The fight for land rights is a primary concern for many of Argentina's indigenous. Talk with those involved in Fair Trade (Comercio Justo), and find out why the concept of solidarity is so important to them.

If you want to explore further, Baplacement can arrange for you to meet
some of the various project staff at Arte y Esperanza who work to support the cause of pueblos originarios. They'd be glad to tell you first-hand about their work, their values, and their experiences, and maybe help you use your time and talents to become involved with a project of cultural exchange.

[1] Arte y Esperanza, Suipacha 892, CABA.
[2] Baplacement, Billinghurst 2052, CABA.
[3] Constitution of the Argentine Nation, Ch.IV x75 Art.17.
[4] "Spirituality of the Toba/Qom Christians of the Argentine Chaco"
Missiology, XXIX/2 pp.165{84, (April 2001).

An article written by Daniel Shepherd, Lowesoft (England)

Daniel Shepherd has been working as a volunteer for Arte y Esperanza since September 2010. While his specialities are mathematics and quantum physics, Daniel has an active interest in a broad range of fields including literature, philosophy, cultural issues and obviously fair trade. Baplacement benefits in particular from his translation and writing skills. Thank you, Daniel!