FELIX DIAS and his tribe, the Toba, have been amid the 14 lanes of traffic on 9 de Julio Avenue in central Buenos Aires since December 1st.
They hold energetic demonstrations, disrupting traffic on the widest street in the world. The heat and intensity is a far cry from their forest homelands in Argentina’s northern province of Fermosa. But it is the threat to these homelands which has driven them to protest in this alien environment.
They say the regional government has destroyed their way of life by razing 600 acres of forest where they live. The government has done this, they allege, despite an agreement not to undertake any deforestation until the completion of a census of the Toba people in 2013.
Dias says this agreement seemed to have secured their future initially.
“The truth is that the law for us is a law that was positive. But in practice it doesn’t work. We are suffering from a lack of justice, and we come to Buenos Aires to try and look for an answer from the national government. Since the first of December until now, we haven’t had an answer. It’s very sad, because we are abandoned. People die from lack of medical attention. We don’t have access to drinking water,” he says.
Dias’s wife, Amanda, says “I am suffering, I have been hit by police, the police almost kill me but I have to keep moving forward with the pain.”
The Toba blame the provincial government, which they say is corrupt and abusive. Daniel, another protester, says “the governor runs the judges, the lawyers, like in colonial times”.
He adds: “The only way to be able to solve the problem is that we are seen by the president. The president has enough power to normalise the situation. And that’s why we are here now in central Buenos Aires, in the central vein. We are making ourselves heard.”
Their sincerity and energy cannot be doubted, but they lack the critical mass to shut down the city-block-wide 9 de Julio Avenue. As the baking heat of the afternoon is swept away by heavy winds which herald the arrival of rain, Buenos Aires traffic slips around them, seemingly inexhaustible.
It is a city which feels as though it is held together by duct tape, endlessly jerry-rigged. The disturbances visited on Buenos Aires by Dias and his tribe are not unique at the moment. The avenue is often subject to partial closure due to protests by poor people seeking to insert themselves into the narrative of the city’s life.
Despite a roaring economy official government statistics say 13.9 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. This figure is made less trustworthy by the numbers of illegal and undocumented workers in the country. They flood in from neighbouring countries like Bolivia (60 per cent below the poverty line) and Paraguay (13 per cent), attracted by the promise of poorly paid but reliable work.
Unrest is common in the city, particularly among these poorer communities.
The influx of migrant workers has frayed the relations between social groups in the city.
Last week, three people were killed when 13,000 poor workers from the shanty towns which surround the city occupied the Indoamericano Park in an attempt to concentrate attention on the desperate living conditions they endure. The government deployed the army and police against the squatters, who also came under attack from angry local residents. Tellingly, the three dead were Bolivian and Paraguayan. Immigrant workers have swamped the city, arriving in their droves from neighbouring countries.
Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Marci sparked controversy when he implied that the new arrivals were responsible for an increase in violent crime and drug trafficking. He was rebuked by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who accused him of xenophobia, and asked for the forgiveness of Argentina’s “Paraguayan and Bolivian brothers and sisters”.
The pace of life in Buenos Aires seems unstoppable. These disturbances continue, becoming part of urban existence.
This week, the government again seems poised to clear squatters out of the grounds of a sports club by any means necessary. Local residents are challenging the squatters, and conflict seems unavoidable. They are especially upset, it seems, by the building of temporary homes on the land.
Ominously, mayor Marci has said the squatters are “more violent” than those which occupied the Indoamericano Park.
Amid this tumult, Dias and his fellow protesters are steadfast in their determination not to leave until their concerns are addressed.
This week, they will endure the pace and noise of the traffic on 9 de Julio Avenue again. All they will say is “we are going to stay until the problems are solved”.