The face of Santiago Maldonado has become a feature of Argentine newspapers and social media since he vanished more than two months ago after demonstrating for greater land rights for the indigenous Mapuche people.
“I would like to ask President Mauricio Macri and all his ministers: where is Santiago Maldonado?” the 28-year-old activist’s brother Sergio asked at a rally in which thousands filled the main square of Buenos Aires this month.
His disappearance, after a confrontation between security forces and protesters, evokes memories of the country’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1980s. But it has also exposed long-simmering land conflicts between indigenous people and foreign investors.
The Mapuche people, who number some 200,000, have ancestral land claims that represent a large chunk of Patagonia as well as most of south-central Chile where they originated and number at least 1.5m more.
There are more than 200 indigenous land conflicts in Argentina. Last month, with government support, the Senate extended a 2006 emergency law protecting communities from eviction until conflicts are resolved, to the applause of human rights groups.
While Argentina allegedly recognises ancestral land rights, it “still sells the land to private companies” for development, said Paola García Rey, director of human rights at Amnesty International’s Argentina office.
“This has generated great tension, which today poses an obvious threat to foreign investors,” she says, arguing that the lack of legal security in Argentina is above all a problem for its indigenous communities.
This conflict is only set to intensify as Mr Macri’s pro-business government seeks to attract ever more foreign investment to develop Argentina’s vast natural resources, especially the Vaca Muerta shale formation in Patagonia, one of the largest in the world.
“The government’s ability to ramp up investment in Vaca Muerta will be put to the test,” said Michelle Carpenter, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. She argues that the Maldonado affair has been exploited by the government’s political opponents ahead of important midterm elections in October, possibly emboldening other protesters.
“Extractive companies can no longer afford to blindly accept government assurances that land titles are in order. Neither can they continue to overlook the actions of federal law enforcement in indigenous areas,” she warns.
Escalating protests by the Mapuche people are already having an impact on investment. The Italian clothing company Benetton, which bought the land claimed by the Mapuches in 1991, is reportedly scaling back its operations in Argentina because of constant action by demonstrators.
After acquiring vast estates spanning 900,000 hectares that were won in the controversial “Conquest of the Desert” in the 1880s, when the newly independent nation wrested the bulk of Patagonia from indigenous tribes, Benetton, Argentina’s largest private landowner, today complains of squatting, arson, theft, roadblocks and the intimidation and kidnapping of its staff.
“Indigenous people have to be consulted first. That didn’t happen in Patagonia,” says Reynaldo Mariqueo, who runs Mapuche International Link from Bristol in England, himself a Mapuche. Benetton has declined to comment.
Benetton is far from the only company to be affected by indigenous land conflicts in Patagonia, where multimillionaires such as Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner, Joseph Lewis and George Soros have bought large tracts of land.
YPF, the state-controlled energy company and one of Argentina’s biggest companies, has complained of what one industry insider described as “extortion” by Mapuches. YPF has paid Mapuche groups about $100m over the past three years to exploit one large oilfield in Patagonia, Loma de la Lata.
“The Mapuches chose to build their camp in the middle of what for many years was the biggest and richest oilfield in the country — how weird,” scoffs a senior executive at an international oil company that operates in Argentina.
Mr Mariqueo, who is also the chargé d’affaires of the Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia in exile, rejects as “absolute rubbish” recent accusations by Argentina’s defence minister that his organisation finances a radical armed group linked to the protests against Benetton.
He says that his people’s wishes are simple: “We just want our land back, and to live in peace and harmony with the environment.”