SANTA VICTORIA DEL ESTE, Argentina — This is
a time of plenty for Argentina's Wichi Indians.
Bare-chested men and boys wade into the muddy waters of the Pilcomayo River and scoop up sabalo, a fish with tasty white flesh, using hand-made cactus-fiber nets. When the sun sets over the mud-brick and thatch hamlets, families gather around outdoor wood fires to eat the day's catch.
Even the bony dogs lounging in the dirt near the fires will be well-fed.
As the rest of Argentina convulses through the worst financial crisis in the nation's history, the Wichi are enjoying one of the best fishing seasons in years.
Capital flight, surging unemployment and the collapse of the banking sector mean little in this forgotten corner of Argentina near the border with Bolivia and Paraguay, where most Wichi still live as hunter-gatherers.
"If I can't buy red meat, I have fish. If I can't buy sugar, I have honey," said Francisco Perez, a cacique (chief), as he ate grilled sabalo washed down with mate, a tealike drink common in the Southern Cone, sweetened with wild honey.
Years of government neglect, combined with the remoteness of this region, have proven in many ways to be a blessing for the Wichi.
Unlike other indigenous peoples in Argentina's northwest, the Wichi were never turned into vassals in feudal land-holding arrangements or forced into back-breaking wage labor in mines and sugar plantations.
Instead, they have retained their language, customs and a degree of self-sufficiency that has helped insulate them from Argentina's economic implosion and political upheaval. The looting and massive street protests in December that left more than two dozen dead and tumbled two presidents in as many weeks might as well have happened in another country.
A presidential decree limiting bank withdrawals, which has stirred a furor among Argentina's urban middle class, has gone unnoticed in the villages near the frontier town of Santa Victoria del Este.
Few Wichi have any savings, let alone the need to put them somewhere. The nearest bank is a three-hour, rattling bus ride away, and the $6 round-trip fare is beyond the means of most people here.
A soaring unemployment rate, which has more than quadrupled in the past decade to an estimated 25 percent, does not reflect new joblessness in the Wichi communities. Most residents have never even held conventional jobs — at least ones that would be counted by census takers.
Fishing season lasts from fall until late spring, which comes in November. The rest of the year, the Wichi live off the region's semi-arid scrub forest, called the monte.
The men hunt for lizards, armadillos and pheasants, and search for wild honey. The women collect berries, and weave bags and fishing nets from the fibers of the chaguar, a native cactus. Children begin helping their parents as soon as they can walk. Few make it through high school, which is conducted in their second language, Spanish.
When it rains enough, many Wichi grow corn, squash, sweet potatoes and watermelons in family gardens.
In the villages, barefoot children wearing dirty T-shirts play outside huts made of cane and tree branches. Outdoor fires serve as stoves. Electricity, gas and running water are nonexistent in most communities.
Some Wichi receive subsidies or steady paychecks working at health posts, schools or other government jobs. Others living near Santa Victoria find odd jobs working for "criollos" — non-indigenous Argentine settlers, most of them ranchers. Some sell fish and handicrafts made of chaguar and native hardwoods.
Breadwinners, however, are relatively small in number, and most share their cash earnings with their large extended families, just as men will divvy up a day's catch of fish among the rest of the clan.
"The Wichi take pity on people who live in the city," said Christopher Wallis, an anthropologist who has lived with the Wichi since 1991. "They have a deep sense of individual autonomy. Their life is flexible, while living in a city you're restrained. They find fixed work hours unbearable."
In a country where children are taught to take pride in their European heritage, policy-makers long kept Argentina's indigenous people, whose population is estimated at 700,000 to 1.5 million, off the national agenda.
High school history textbooks commonly ignore them, except in reference to the Conquest of the Desert, a bloody military campaign begun in 1879 that crushed indigenous resistance on Argentina's frontiers.
Until 1994, the only mention of the indigenous people in the country's constitution was an article giving Congress the responsibility of "fomenting their conversion to Catholicism."
The National Institute of Indigenous Affairs is confined by a budget of less than $2 million this year, a paltry sum compared with other government social spending.
Perhaps nowhere in Argentina is government neglect more visible than in the indigenous villages near Santa Victoria, where the Wichi were not even officially registered as citizens until the 1960s. In some ways, this neglect has helped them maintain a degree of economic self-reliance and cultural continuity lost by other indigenous groups in Argentina.
But the Wichi have nonetheless become increasingly dependent on the globalized, capitalist economy and, as a result, have not been impervious to Argentina's financial meltdown.
In recent decades, most families have incorporated criollo foods — such as sugar, flour, cooking oil and mate — into their diets. The devaluation of the peso in January has led to a steady surge in inflation, which has about tripled the prices of these basic goods on which the Wichi have come to depend.
In addition, government spending cuts have led to shortages in medical supplies and drugs, while health workers have gone unpaid — a familiar story in the nation's cash-strapped provinces. The deterioration in medical care does not bode well in a region with scant safe drinking water, chronic child malnutrition, high infant mortality and a high incidence of tuberculosis, among other health problems. A cholera outbreak swept through the area in 1992.
"Today, it's worse than it's ever been," said Michael Patterson, an Anglican missionary who became the region's only doctor when he arrived in 1963. "This is one of the most underprivileged places in Argentina. The newer doctors here are working hard, but there is a limit to what they can do with one pair of hands."
For Francisco Perez, the greatest threat to his people's future is not a lack of government aid, but an unresolved land dispute that could be the key to securing the Wichi's self-sufficiency.
The 6,000 or so Wichi in the region share more than 1.5 million acres of government-owned land with 400 criollo families. Both are vying for their share of the land, with the government acting as arbiter.
Mr. Perez contends that unchecked logging and grazing by the criollos have taken a toll on the fragile monte ecosystem, threatening the Wichi's primary mode of subsistence when fishing is either not good or out of season. In addition, while neither Wichi nor criollos own private property outside of Santa Victoria, many criollo ranchers have put up fences marking the land as theirs. The fences have further limited the hunting and gathering of the Wichi, who often walk for hours and even days, to find prey, berries, hardwood, honey and chaguar.
Land disputes like this one have become common in Argentina, where an estimated 70 percent of rural indigenous communities lack title to the land they live on, according to Luis Zapiola, a Buenos Aires-based lawyer who specializes in land disputes.
Mr. Perez, who heads an organization that represents 35 Wichi communities, has insisted that the Wichi be granted an unbroken swath of communal land. The organization, called Lhaka Honhat — "Our Land" — has rejected government offers to divide the land into small parcels. Mr. Perez says that establishing private property would end the Wichi's traditional way of life.
Slow-moving negotiations with the government have been delayed further by the economic crisis.
"The government wants to urbanize us. Since the Spanish came, that's been their idea. They want everybody to have a numbered house on a street with a name," Mr. Perez said.
"We don't want that. Our life is in the monte and on the river; that's why we're asking for the lands."