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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 September 2007, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Argentina's forest people suffer neglect
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Argentina

The Toba are one of the few remaining indigenous groups in Argentina. They live in The Impenetrable Forest, the poorest area in the poorest province of the country.

The early Spanish settlers wrote about the Tobas saying they were a fierce people, hardened by an inhospitable terrain.

They killed those who dared stray into what became known as the Bosque Impenetrable, the Impenetrable Forest.

Two Toba children
The Toba are a tiny minority in Argentina, with only 18,000 people

But there is little sign of that fierceness today in a community ravaged by years of neglect and exploitation.

At the state-run hospital in the town of Castelli at the entrance to the forest, tired, wizened Tobas sit on dirty sheets in fly-infested wards, staring blankly at nothing, waiting to die.

These are the original Argentines, their straight, dark hair and brown skin in marked contrast to the descendants of European immigrants who live in the cities.

Poverty and Malnutrition

Many look much older than they are, and are suffering from tuberculosis or the effects of Chagas disease, caused by a parasitic insect.

These are illnesses with their roots in poverty and all the patients are much thinner than they should be, many too emaciated to be operated on.

The families who brought them here, often from long distances, sit with them since they have nowhere else to go and have little or no money for food.

An elderly women in hospital
Many Toba are suffering from TB, Chagos disease, or malnutrition

In recent months, it has been reported that some Toba have died from malnutrition, something those in the capital, Buenos Aires find hard to accept in a country where the economy is growing at the rate of 8% a year.

Rolando Nunez runs the Nelson Mandela Centre which distributes food to the remote communities deep in the forest.

The forest, with its rutted dirt roads and thick vegetation is, in parts, still pretty impenetrable. Until recently, few had much desire to go there.

Mr Nunez accuses the local and national authorities of blatant neglect and says they manipulate the official figures to make the situation appear better than it is.

He accuses the authorities of what he calls a gradual genocide.

The director of the hospital, Raul Romero, talked of doing the best he could with limited resources.

A Toba hut
Many Toba still live in primitive mud and stick huts

In the provincial capital, Resistencia, health minister Dr Ricardo Mayol, said the Toba often spurned their offers of help, checking out of the hospitals without being treated.

The authorities provided emergency food where it was needed, he said, and many of those who reportedly died of hunger had in fact been suffering from other diseases.

TB Survivor

Juan Sosa lives in a small hut made of mud and sticks in a clearing in the forest. He speaks Spanish with difficulty and occasionally turns to a Toba translator for help as he describes how he recently contracted tuberculosis and prepared to die.

The tears run down his cheeks as he tells me of the arrival of food aid from the Nelson Mandela Centre which enabled him to build himself up and fight the disease.

Juan Sosa, a Toba
All we want is respect from the government
Juan Sosa

The mud and stick house he lives in has a straw roof and provides little protection from the relentless heat that batters Chaco province in the summer.

The tiny house is home to 16 members of his family.

Juan hugged me as I left, touched that anyone should be interested in his plight after so many years of neglect.

"All we want is respect from the government," he said. "Nothing more."

I later learnt that this man with almost nothing had offered to kill and cook a kid goat for us.

The Toba hunt and gather wild fruits. But the growth of soya production in recent years has enticed farmers to the region in search of new lands to cultivate.

As we were driving in, trucks carrying freshly chopped quebracho trees, much sought-after as quality hardwood timber, were driving out.


The local branch of the environmental organisation, Greenpeace, has warned that massive deforestation is threatening some native groups with extinction.

To make matters worse, the traditional cultivation of cotton in Chaco, which used to provide the Toba with seasonal work, is being replaced by less labour-intensive soya production.

The impenetrable forest is becoming less impenetrable and with it the Toba are losing their lands and livelihoods.

Many have emigrated to the cities where large communities struggle to earn a living in burgeoning shanty towns.

There are about 18,000 Toba. Argentina has one of the smallest indigenous communities in the Americas, making it difficult for them to find a voice and maintain their language and customs.

And this while neighbouring Bolivia has an indigenous president in Evo Morales, and aboriginal people elsewhere are winning battles over land rights and finding pride in their cultural heritage.

At the tiny Resistencia airport there is a shop selling trinkets made by the Toba: cheap ashtrays and badly made bows and arrows.

The salesman, himself a Toba, told me that if I bought something, I would be taking the spirit of his people home with me.

Just then, my flight back to Buenos Aires was called and I turned to leave.

He caught my eye imploring me to buy something, anything, then with a smile threw his arms in the air in resignation.

We both knew that a bow and arrow with the words "Province of Chaco" printed on them were not going to change anything.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 27 September, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Argentina
17 Jul 07 |  Country profiles

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