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Aug 27, 2009

Interview: Ale Corte

by Abi Weaver

Ale Corte (Director, Colours at the End of the World)

Ale Corte’s Colours at the End of the World exposes the legacy of colonisation on the example of Benetton’s dispute with the Mapuches in Argentina. In this interview the director provides us with more of an insight into the conflict by Kamila Kuc

Kamila Kuc: Colours at the End of the World takes a conflict of land ownership between Benetton and the Mapuches in Argentina as a starting point to reflect on the effects of globalization and by extension, colonization.  What was the inspiration behind the film?

Ale Corte: The inspiration behind Colours was to show a paradise that is owned and handled by wealthy and powerful people in a world where the rules were created for those in power.  Many wealthy foreign industrialists are acquiring massive land holdings in Patagonia where they effectively apply their own values and standards of behaviour.  The lands which were previously used by indigenous people for subsistence and the rivers once used for local transportation and fishing are now barred by these foreign owners who use the land for leisure activities or have an interest in the water reserves or mining potential. 

The origins of this foreign land ownership date back to the nineteenth century when the Argentine government under General Roca decided to end border disputes with the Indigenous communities of the pampas in an aggressive military campaign called ‘The Conquest of the Dessert’. 1,250 Native Americans were killed and 3,000 taken as prisoners.  The Argentine government subsequently sold the lands to the Southern Argentine Land Company, a British enterprise and since this period the land holdings have been sold on to foreign owners including Benetton today. The Mapuches dispute the legality of the original sale of land and therefore dispute the legality of Benetton’s ownership today. 

This situation throws up many issues for discussion; the dispute between Benetton and the Mapuches is just one example, which highlights some of the injustices of globalization and the legacy of colonization.  Though the Mapuches now working on Benetton’s ranches are apparently offered a good wage and steady employment, they have no power to alter this destiny, or to stop the incoming business taking profit from Patagonia and threatening the local culture and way of life in the process.

The indigenous people describe Benetton’s land as a cage that has trapped the winds, stars, sun and moon; they say the life in these things disappears because everything is reduced to its economic value.

KK: Globalisation should guarantee unification of international laws and security of human rights. And here Atilio and Rosa, the Mapuches, have been evicted from their land. In the name of what? Isn’t globalization  just another name for imperialism?

AC: Most of the major landowners in Patagonia are foreign and both the legal system and governors of these areas are, as they have been since the nineteenth century, supportive of the landowners, sometimes at the expense of the majority of local people. The story of Rosa and Atilio symbolizes the endless scream of frustration that results from that.

When the Southern Argentine Land Company was given the rights to own these lands there were no records of the previous users or owners, many of whom may have been killed in ‘The Conquest of the Desert’, many of whom may never have written records of ownership of land that had been used by their families for generations.  New land rights were created with no accurate measures or controls and certainly without consulting the occupants.  The new system of law and land ownership has been imposed on the Mapuches and they do not recognize it.  For them the relationship with the land is a fundamental and traditional part of life, the land is not a commodity to be bought and sold, but this perspective is incompatible with foreign economic interests.  

The story of the spread of dominant cultures and the subsequent demise of their empires has been the story of our human species.  In Patagonia the Mapuches are perhaps not the only subjugated culture. In the sixteenth century when the mariner Magallanes arrived on the shores of Patagonia during his attempt to circumnavigate the globe, he reported a race of people, the Tehuelches, very tall and with large feet who it seems were either exterminated or culturally overwhelmed by the Mapuches.  The Mapuches originally came from the Andes and from Chile so it is possible that in the distant past they also subjugated an indigenous culture.

Mapuche activists are aware that globalization cuts both ways so in their fight for restitution they are appealing to international laws and conventions.  They cite the European Union Code of Conduct regarding the operations of European companies that invest in developing countries (Resolution 15/11/99) in their criticism of Benetton’s behaviour.  There are numerous NGO’s fighting on behalf of indigenous people around the world to change land right laws, but avenues like these are slow to travel down.

KK: Benetton’s donations to the local people, which reduce poverty etc. ask us to consider the ‘betterment’ (Benetton’s expression) of Atilio and Rosa against the betterment of 100 homeless people in the local community. It is a question of ethics but how to resolve the conflict if big concerns such as Benetton do not have any sense of what’s ethical?

AC: We may look back at this period of history and be amazed by the lack of ethical regulation of business.  A cynical view is that Benetton uses philanthropic gestures such as creating shelters for the homeless, roads and police stations, as PR stunts to balance out brand-damage caused by controversial treatment of the Mapuches, but we can’t be sure of this.

In the future I hope that the profit motive of commercial organizations will be used to control their ethical behaviour.  Sadly consumers do not always boycott unethical companies as in the case of Primark, still successful despite wide overage of its unethical employment policies.  Without consumers doing the job of censoring unethical companies, governments need to set regulations in place by setting up financial incentives, obviously this is important because of environmental impact as well as social impact.  Corporate social responsibility is now being forced into focus for most major businesses and in the future perhaps we will see some system of control like triple bottom line accounting, where company reports have to include details of social and environmental activities as well as financial activities, companies are then given tax breaks if they report good behaviour.  This form of accounting is already in action in Western Australia.

KK: The film touches on an important issue of the heritage and existence of indigenous cultures.  Rosa and Atilio describe the Leleque Museum as a joke.  The museum talks of the tribes as a part of history, which contributes to a view that indigenous cultures do not exist anymore, which by extension indicates that the land does not need to be cultivated anymore.

AC: The way Benetton communicates the history of the area is controversial, in the Museum he established at Leleque the Tehuelches are recognized as the original inhabitants of Patagonia and the Mapuches are not included even though there are photos of Rosa’s ancestors on display.  In the eyes of the Mapuche community the museum seems to delete their culture and magnify the modern progress of the white man. Also Benetton’s company edited books on the history of Patagonia, which excluded details of the problems with Rosa and Atilio. 

Benetton has shown masterful control of audiences around the world with his advertising campaigns and is extremely experienced at handling PR, he’s good at corporate communication designed to maximize profit for his company.  In Patagonia, Benetton’s financial interests are clearly not going to encourage him to portray the plight of the indigenous people deprived of their traditional lands and to the Mapuches this is an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

KK: There is a moment in the film when a woman takes you around the Benetton warehouse in Treviso.  The woman’s speech appears comical, it is almost ridiculed.  Was this deliberate?

AC: Yes it was.  We travelled to Treviso hoping to speak to Luciano Benetton or a senior member of the company about their conflict in Patagonia.  Instead we received a well-organized tour where they showed all their latest technology.  I told the crew to keep rolling thinking we wouldn’t use more than a few seconds.  When the guide passed through the control area she mentioned that from there they have control of everything.  At that point the contrast between the two worlds seems poignant and the image of Benetton controlling the puppet strings came to mind.  Also the harsh clinical lines of the factory and the dispassionate voice of the guide were in such strong contrast to the world of the Curinancos: nature, passion and poverty.

KK: On the backdrop of the indigenous activist Mauro Millan’s talk about Buenos Aires creating the first concentration camps, you played some amazing old film footage.  Where does it come from?

AC: The first year while I was researching, I went to Patagonia with a cameraman to get the project started and to search for funding.  I completed a treatment, and spent time knocking on doors getting no response until I reached the point when I thought of giving up; but the distance between yes and no is too short.  When you set a course of action the energy and inspiration stays with you.  Adrenaline gave me the strength to read, inform myself and become the Director, Producer, Editor and interviewer of people such as Perez Esquivel.  You have to be well informed to sit in front of such a great thinker.  As part of that process I had to visit the General Archives of the Argentine Nation, where I spent hours selecting material that helped me to illustrate historical foreign interest in Patagonia.

KK: Benetton gave the Mapuches 7500 hectares of land but only 300 hectares were productive.  This is a rather offensive joke.

AC: The plot donated by Benetton is 400 km from where Rosa and Atilio live and was previously owned by a private landowner who was able to invest in it as a tourist attraction.  As an agricultural site it is a tougher prospect but it was not this that prevented the acceptance of Benetton’s offer.  Benetton made the offer of land through the local governor for him to distribute to the Mapuches.  It was the governor who rejected the offer.  Interestingly this means that the land acquired as a gesture of restitution is now just adding to the thousands of hectares already owned by Benetton, a cynic might say that this was his intention. 

Rosa and Atilio say that they would not have accepted this land anyway, for them it is a question of principle and they do not believe the land is Benetton’s to give.

KK: Esquivel describes the current government policies towards indigenous tribes as a silent extermination and calls for a greater unification of international indigenous activists and movements.  He says that nothing is impossible but you have to fight. ‘You cannot buy dignity with money’, continues Esquivel, and this is what Mapuches have: honour and dignity.  But would this be enough for them to win this battle?

AC: No, I’m afraid that honour and dignity is not enough.  The case of Rosa and Atilio was taken to the civil court where it was ruled that they could not be evicted from the land as long as they did not break certain restrictions.  So they are not allowed to light a fire or breach the boundary fence around the land. They have not won the initial fight but the broader battle is still being fought. Mapuche activists are working to question the legality of the original passing of these lands into foreign ownership and that may eventually affect Benetton’s claim to the land.

Also a broader shift is taking place in South America with two indigenous Presidents, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, two socialist leaders with the question of land rights and reforms on their agendas.  In Australia in 1976 the first Aboriginal Land Rights act was passed, a law that allowed a claim of title if claimants could provide evidence of their traditional association with land.   Since then the process of trying to repair the historical abuse of land rights by colonialists has culminated in Kevin Rudd apologizing to the aboriginals.  Perhaps something like this could become a reality in Patagonia too.  

There are a number of Mapuche activist groups working for indigenous land rights and many NGOs’ lobbying for legal changes. With media coverage the plight of the Mapuches can be highlighted and where there is an economic interest concerned, consumers may start to feel differently about buying products from these businesses.  In other cases like that of Douglas Tompkins, another foreign land owner in Patagonia, who uses his land to create nature reserves, only a change to the laws on land rights or human rights could make a difference.

KK: At the end of the film Atilio and Rosa are now back to their territory and they are not intending to move what is the latest update on the story?

AC: On February 14th 2007, members of the Mapuche People recovered the land known as “Santa Rosa”. Since 2002, when the Curiñanco-Nahuelquir family was evicted from this land due to a legal claim set by Benetton, this place has become a symbol of the struggle to recover the territory and the identity of this Native People. On February 14th, tens of inhabitants of this area arrived at this piece of land before dawn to carry out a traditional Mapuche ceremony in which they asked for permission of the forces of Nature to interact with them.

Later, an act was read, through which all the present members were constituted as a community, as well as a proclamation. The multinational company Benetton filed a “promissory restitution” claim in the Esquel justice system at the beginning of March 2008 for the 565 hectares recovered by the Santa Rosa Leleque Community, believing “irreparable damage” to have been made to the site. At the request of the Mapuche and their lawyers, the examining magistrate, Omar Magallanes, made an onsite visual inspection on the morning of Friday 9th May 2008 for the purposes of verifying these claims. The following day, in Cuesta del Ternero (Rio Negro), Rosa Nahuelquir and Atilio Curinanco gave details of the judge’s visit and the continuing attempts by Benetton to evict them. They also displayed support for the Mapuche Quintupuray Community in their legitimate struggle demanding recovery of the land belonging to them.

KK: What characterizes most of the documentaries in this year’s Festival is the commitment to a social change.  Do you believe that films can change people’s perceptions of thing, which would then result in more appropriate actions?

AC: Yes, film can be a very powerful motivator of change, I’m thinking about films like An Inconvenient Truth and also thinking of the Chilean government imprisoning the documentalist Elena Varela, while filming “Newen Mapuche”about the plight of the Mapuches there.  Films can only have an impact if they are seen by large numbers of people.  At Broadcasting forums we are told that UK audiences want programmes about cooking, celebrities and sick children, and the current hot countries as subjects for documentaries are India and China not South America.

Some others told me that Benetton is not of interest to the UK market.  So market researchers who decide where audience demand lies, effectively bar some topics, including land rights in South America, from reaching wider audiences.  And finally, the Government run BAFICI Film Festival in Argentina didn’t select Colours from being shown in its country of origin, which was a big disappointment.  So yes films can make a difference but they have to be seen.

To read a review of the film, click here.

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