“My papa settled here in 1944,” Pablo Sarmiento says in a serene voice and gentle manner, as he looks at the ruins of his home that was torn down by a multinational’s bulldozers. They arrived on May 24, without prior notice, judicial orders or signed authorization. They encircled the houses with wire fences to delineate the property of the new “investor.” Pablo looks out at the barren plain at the foothills of the Andes, where just 80 to 100 millimeters of rain fall every year; only the sounds of the trucks along Ruta 40 interrupt the silence. Pablo is one of the seven children of José Celestino Sarmiento who continued to work as a shepherd, just as his father did. He used to have some 200 animals on these dry open lands, where there is no water and pasture is sparse, where they built homes, feed sheds, and drilled 174 meters down to find pools of water for their animals to drink. Since Pablo and his sons wanted to remain on the land that their family has occupied for nearly 70 years, they tried to file a complaint, which the police refused to accept. Meanwhile, they found out that the company wanted them tried as usurpers.”
The shepherds are small farmers who practice nomadic ranching; they rotate their animals through several fields, depending on the availability of pasture and water. This kind of work forces them to move between different posts or “puestos” to care of their animals—goats and cows, at times hogs and poultry. “It takes me about 20 days to move my 200 animals because they’re all scattered,” Pablo explains.
From the distant past, these open, public lands have been considered communal grazing lands because of their low productivity. “At times seven and eight months go by without rain, everything is dry, even the mesquite dries up. The fences began going up four years ago. They buy, fence off the land and plant olive trees.” Pablo explains that the new “proprietors” paid off people who engaged in dubious legal proceedings to justify possession of land that was never owned by anyone.
Doña Carmen is the name of a business belonging to the Spanish company Argenceres, located between the provinces of Mendoza and San Juan, which has more than 38,000 hectares. On its website, the company describes the olive grove that now occupies more than 2,000 hectares:
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