Argentine Wheat Hides a History of Native Genocide
“I wish you could see us,” writes Gabriela Cabezón Cámara in the final chapter of The Adventures of China Iron, a sweeping queer, postcolonial retelling of the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro. The novel follows fourteen-year-old China Iron, the abandoned wife of Martin Fierro, as she travels across Argentina’s vast Pampas grasslands with her new friend and lover, a Scottish woman named Liz, to a ranch on the edge of the new nation’s frontier. Having never left her isolated farmstead, China’s understanding of Argentina expands from that of a vast and empty expanse to an ancient plurinational civilization filled with endless plants, animals, cultures and languages.
Once arrived as the special guests of an important Coronel, the women find themselves in a violent, lawless world that is impossible for them to inhabit. They abandon their attempts to reclaim a plot of land in order to join the Iñchiñ tribe and become one with the river-dwelling nomads that live off the natural generosity of the Río Paraná. They move north and south with the seasons subsisting off of giant river fish, wild plants and the cattle that follow them. When the winter mist begins to settle over the river, the tribe disappears, blending into the cloudy white air, living from what the natural world offers them.
“I wish you could see us,” the narrator repeats, “but no one will.”
The line emphasises the way that the Iñchiñ tribe blends into their surroundings but the time that the story takes place points to an ominous foreshadowing. The year is 1872. At the end of the decade, the military will launch the Conquista del Desierto, or Desert Conquest, strategic assaults all across the country to usurp lands and destroy all traces of indigenous civilization. The fictional Iñchiñ people, likely pushing their kayaks through the province of Santa Fe, will be replaced by European immigrants that will steadily turn the area into the nation’s wheat belt.
Argentina gained independence from the Spanish Viceroyalty in 1816. The Spanish Crown never fully colonized Argentine territory. Nearly half of Argentina’s current territory was ruled by autonomous Native groups and the colonies that did exist were mostly small urban centers that served as little more than outposts that connected the neighboring colonies and their capitals (Lima, Potosi, Asunción) to the ports of Buenos Aires. Following independence, the nation fought six decades of successive civil wars in addition to territorial disputes with neighbouring nations. The land of the Southern Cone, particularly the vast and fertile lands of the Central Argentine Pampas region, represented an unquantifiable economic opportunity for whichever new nation took control.
During the second half of the 19th century, Buenos Aires tripled in population and built itself up as the political, economic and social epicentre whilst a modern city was constructed in the image of Paris. Political intellectuals and the country’s elite saw two challenges: a violent unification process and taking over territory from politically autonomous “infidel Indians”. The ruling class began to construct the vision of an ideal singular state that was threatened by an Argentina where two societies coexisted within the same territory: civilised European city-dwellers and lawless rural indigenous and mixed Spanish Criollos.
“In America, everything that is not European is barbarian,” wrote Juan B. Alberdi, one of the fathers of the Argentine constitution (1853). Alberdi and his counterparts referred to the world beyond the frontier as ‘deserts’; indigenous tribes and mixed Spanish-Argentines were perceived as disjointed and isolated groups who did not belong to the same country and were completely separate from the rest of the world. Influential politician Domingo F. Sarmiento described life beyond the city as stuck in another time: the criollos existed underneath the rules of the former colony and the native peoples were painted as savages.
To men like Sarmiento and Alberdi, cultural homogeneity underneath the white Western European understanding of civilization was the key to progress and stability. Native peoples were identified as a dangerous internal other and the assimilation or elimination of their politics, culture and economy was argued as a part of a natural and necessary state development process in order to enter the core of the global economy.
By 1879, power was firmly concentrated in Buenos Aires. Minister of War – and eventual President – Julio A Roca launched a series of war campaigns that violently usurped lands from the native populations across the Argentine grasslands, Patagonia and the forests of the Northeast Chaco. Roca’s military campaign was facilitated by a binary, European supremacist ideology that developed parallel to political pressures to insert Argentina into global trade networks; unsettled lands were perceived as empty ‘deserts’, despite being ruled by autonomous tribes with intricate economic and social structures. The economic development that followed quickly established Argentina as a global power – land was colonised and transformed into a farm belt that cultivated lucrative grains, leather, wool and other raw materials that were sold to the European market.
French doctor and chronicler Henry Armaignac described life in the leadup to the campaign in Voyages dans les pampas de la République Argentine: 1869-1874. Written between 1869 and 1874, his travel journal charted years living and travelling across the vast grassland region of the Pampas, an expanse that covers six provinces over 700,000 square kilometres in the country’s centre. In line with the political intellectuals of the time, Armaignac describes empty ‘deserts’ that extend as far as the eye could see, almost completely uninhabited by people. He constantly writes of his fear of the ‘malón salvaje’, groups of ‘Indian’ bandits that attacked ranches and stole cattle, women and children—true but exaggerated into folklore that was told and retold in the country’s urban centres to create fear and disgust of indigenous people.
Although the word desert was used to describe an empty space, the lands of the Pampas were not uninhabited but rather undomesticated. Autonomous native tribes lived all across the Pampas and were historically nomadic hunter-gatherers rather than stationary agriculturalists. The terms ‘savage’ or ‘uncivilised’ were used as a signifier for indigenous, as a way to dehumanise the Native population and delegitimise the economic and social structures that they built as a response to colonisation.
Very little is known about the indigenous peoples of the Pampa region before colonialism as information was passed from one generation to the next orally. Archaeological evidence has discovered nomadic settlements of hunter-gatherers that subsisted largely off of meat-heavy diets but little about their Pre-Columbian customs, economy and social structures are known. Nearly all written documentation is from later periods with information that was dictated to white settlers or chroniclers.
When the Spanish arrived, the relationship that developed was relatively peaceful. The introduction of cattle and horses allowed native communities to strengthen their ties with one another. Beginning in the 17th century, long-existing Trans-Andean trade networks that extended from the grasslands of present-day Buenos Aires all the way to Chile began to intensify and unify indigenous cultures across Patagonia and the Pampas. The Aruacanos, or Mapuches, were the catalysts—they inserted the use of horses, instituted their language and formalised trade routes.
By the 18th century, indigenous culture and economies across the Pampas transformed drastically as the Aruacanos began to unify and rule over the region. Diets incorporated domesticated lamb, goat, horse and beef alongside indigenous wild animals as well as flours, sugars, yerba mate, liquors, and fruits and vegetables with the late adoption of subsistence gardening and agricultural systems.
Indigenous knowledge of seasonal weather patterns, native pastures and geography allowed them to rapidly develop sophisticated cattle and grazing systems. Beef was traded along the Andes or sold in Chile, although indigenous peoples also traded and sold goods in towns across the Pampa and in markets in the city of Buenos Aires. It was not until after Independence that the economic structures that the native tribes had adapted to their nomadic culture became a threat to the growing state.
The economic and social development of the indigenous tribes stood in direct opposition to the nation building process developed in Buenos Aires, whose elite created political pressures to push Argentina to the core of the global economy as an exporter of raw materials and foodstuffs. This desire to push Argentina as a world power is what ultimately facilitated the Desert Conquest and the annihilation of indigenous cultures from the Argentine hegemonic cultural and economic structures. The official stats recorded by the national government only reports the massacre of around 14,000 indigenous peoples over a five year period. Those who were not killed were stripped of all material belongings, territory and social structures and forced into servitude on farms and other labour markets or pushed into isolated, desolate territories.
The military campaigns were funded largely by government bonds that were traded in for one square league, or about 5.5 square kilometres. International speculators and wealthy families bought up bonds that they traded for land as the frontier expanded. Land that was left over was sold off in parcels that were limited to 40,000 hectares per buyer, although speculators used fake names and third party intermediaries to buy larger tracts of land.
By 1900, the entire Pampa region had been passed into the hands of private shareholders. Nearly every trace of native culture was gone.
Following the Desert Conquest, wheat established itself as the primary crop. The lands were tended to by poor European immigrants who were at the mercy of large landowners that controlled seeds, machinery, processing and transport. The immigrant farm workers had little intention of remaining in Argentina. Many came to save up money and move back home. Landowners were motivated by exports and standardised monoculture as the nation’s farming system. The combination of the two attitudes meant that those who worked the land rarely developed skilled, intrinsic understandings of farming technologies. Maintaining soil health was of complete unimportance—when soil health depleted, it was abandoned and another area of virgin land was farmed.
This period of establishing farming systems coincided with unprecedented economic growth that pushed Argentina onto the global stage and brought immigrants from all over the world, but particularly Europe. Wheat, alongside other products like leather and wool, were sold for gold and rapidly made Buenos Aires one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
This Golden Age is remembered fondly, and during much of the twentieth century, hegemonic constructions characterised the Conquest apolitically as a natural development process. In 1978, during the dictatorship of General Jorge Videla, the government celebrated 100 years of the Desert Conquest, albeit changing the name to the Desert Campaigns. The government’s celebration of a genocidal process that successfully expelled aboriginal Agentines denied their insertion into the Argentine state identity and ultimately denied their very existence.
Conversations about indigenous Argentines and the Conquest began to shift with the return to democracy in the 1980s but the dominant narrative of a South American country of Europeans is deeply ingrained. President Mauricio Macri argued that a deal between the European Union and Mercosur would be a natural fit because “In South America, we are all descendents of Europeans”, a sentiment that was echoed by current President Alberto Fernandez, who in a conference with the Spanish Prime Minister said that “the Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came from the jungles, but us Argentines arrived on boats. Those boats came from Europe.”
In pop culture, the sentiment is broadcast and legitimised to the rest of the world. When Netflix’s Street Food visited Argentina, the local narrator introduced the episode by saying that Buenos Aires had more in common with Europe than Latin America and that everyone in Buenos Aires had Italian blood. In foreign and local media, the city is frequently described as the ‘Paris of South America’. I have written extensively about how repeating the same simple narrative obscures the reality of a cultural diversity that has been historically dominated into assimilation by hegemonic society, and both erases and repeats the history of subjugation of Indigenous communities and minoritized people of colour.
The legacy of the genocide in the modern food system is inescapable. Wheat is one of Argentina’s largest crops—grown in monoculture farms that are treated with an array of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The Pampas region, one of the principal territories that the Desert Conquest war campaigns went after, produces nearly 5% of the global market share of wheat. Three quarters of annual production is exported and pumps the economy with $2.1 billion dollars annually. At home, it shows up on our plates at nearly every meal. 31% of the daily energy intake is wheat based: 72 kilos of bread per capita is consumed each year and rounded out by pizzas, empanadas, pastas and pastries.
These acts of organised farming and agriculture, which were the fruits of a genocidal process against Indigenous people, are exercises in nation-building as they established the identity of Argentina on a global stage. Internally, it built the foundations for the identity of Argentines of European heritage who continued, and in many instances prospered, under the established economic and agricultural practises.
There’s a long road ahead to reverse the last 150 years of nation building. Yet as the damage of extractivist farming for export policies on ecology, diet and economy become harder to deny underneath the climate crisis and unwavering wealth disparity, conversations that have been stuck in the fringes are beginning to move to the mainstream. Agroecology, food sovereignty and the protection of natural resources are beginning to creep into the collective consciousness. Although wheat will likely remain an important staple, it’s time to move away from a model that is static and outward facing and recognize what has been lost and what can still be learned from the people who once lived on these lands.
Kevin Vaughn is a Buenos Aires-based journalist, cook and food tour guide. All of his work encircles his profound curiosity for history, ecology, narrative and sociopolitics and the way that those systems overlap and find their ways into our food. You can access more of his work on his personal website.
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. The Adventures of China Iron: (Penguin Random House, 2017).
James R. Scobie. Revolución en las Pampas: Historia Social del Trigo Argentino, 1860 - 1910: (Ediciones Solar, 1968).
Raúl José Mandrini. La Agricultura Indigena en la Región Pampeana y sus Adyacencias (Siglos XVIII y XIX): (Universidad Nacional Luján, 1985).
Raúl José Mandrini. La Economía Indígena del Ámbito Pampeano-Patagónico ¿Problema de las fuentes o ceguera de los historiadores?: (Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, 1999).
Gastón Gordillo and Silvia Hirsch, ‘Indigenous Struggles and Contested Identities in Argentina Histories of Invisibilization and Reemergence’ in Journal of Latin American Anthropology (2003).
Salvador Canals Frau. Poblaciones Indigenas de la Argentina: (Editorial Sudamericana, 1953).
Guillermo Furlong. Entre las Pampas de Buenos Aires: (Talleres Graficos San Pablo, 1938).
H. Armaignac. Viajes por las Pampas Argentinas: (Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1972).
Walter Delrio and Pilar Pérez, “Beyond the “Desert” Indigenous Genocide as a Structuring Event in Northern Patagonia” in The Conquest of the Desert: Argentina’s Indigenous Peoples and the Battle for History, ed Carolyne R. Larson. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020).
Jen Koehrsen. Middle-Class Pentecostalism in Argentina: Inappropriate Spirits: (Brill, 2016).
Carlos H. Waisman. Reversal of Development in Argentina: Postwar Counterrevolutionary Policies: (Princeton University Press, 1987).
Kevin Vaughn. “Netflix’s ‘Street Food’ and the Colonisation of Narratives”: (Matambre, 2020)
Cristina M. Rosell, Joanna Bajerska, Aly F. El Sheikha. Bread and Its Fortification: Nutrition and Health Benefits: (CRC Press, 2016)
image credit: Shutterstock - Argentinian pampas grassland with a view of the Fitz Roy mountain in the background, near the town of El Chalten in Patagonia.