¡Viva! Film Notes – El Árbol negro

Dr Ignacio Aguiló, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at The University of Manchester, explores Máximo Ciambella and Damián Coluccio’s El Árbol negro , screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2020.

The fable about a mysterious black tree that once united heaven and earth and possessed the power to undo spells is the starting point to El Árbol negro. This immersive and sensory documentary film tells the struggle and suffering of the Qom communities, one of the many native peoples of northern Argentinian. Among other awards, it won the FIPRESCI Award, the Greenpeace Award and Best Documentary at the 2018 edition of the Mar del Plata Film Festival, Argentina’s most prestigious film festival.

El Árbol negro is the debut film of Máximo Ciambella and Damián Coluccio, two young filmmakers who first heard about the fable of the black tree through a book by the Argentinian anthropologist Pablo Wright, who lived for a long time with the Qom. The film is set in the Argentinian province of Chaco, one of the poorest in the country. Ciambella and Coluccio, who reside in Buenos Aires, started working on the documentary about six years ago. They initially wanted to make fiction shorts about the local indigenous myths but, as they became more familiar with the situation of indigenous communities in the area, particularly the fires caused by agribusiness to drive the Qom out of their lands, they decided to change the focus.

The documentary shows the political and cultural juncture in which the Qom are. Mainly, how they deal with the problems of everyday life following the precepts of their cosmogony, while also struggling to keep their ancestral lands against agribusiness and the local political powers. In that sense, myths sometimes seem the only way to find solutions to problems that have to do with the destruction of land and resources; expulsion from their villages and forced migration to the cities, where they are proletarianised; and the absence of bilingual, intercultural education for their children.

The film reflects the consolidation, in Argentina, of a neo-extractive economic system adopted by several Latin American governments at the turn of the 21st century. Neo-extractivism orientates the economy towards the exploitation of natural resources by international corporations, which sell these commodities abroad, particularly to industrialised countries. This, in itself, is nothing new: the whole history of Latin America and other colonised regions in the world in the early modern period is defined by the extraction of natural resources. However, neo-extractivism differs from the traditional extractive economy in terms of scale and capacity. Current extractive technology implies that areas that in the past were not productive now are. Thus, business venture into new territories, many of them belonging to indigenous communities who, as they resist, suffer paramilitary and state repression.

Among all the countries in the region that have embraced the neo-extractivist model, Argentina is a paradigmatic case. In the past two decades, mining, logging, and soya production have experienced unparalleled developments, with dramatically negative environmental and health consequences. Argentina is one of the top food-producing and food-exporting countries of the world. Around 115,000 square miles of the country’s lands are used for farming, of which 77,000 are dedicated to genetically modified soya. This is roughly the size of France. Most land in Argentina is in the hands of a very few landowners, with 40% of soya being produced by 7% of farmers. Soya producers make extensive use of toxic chemicals. Argentina is the world’s primary user of glyphosate, an extremely potent form of herbicide that has been declared potentially carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and, most recently, by the World Health Organisation. Every year, around 300 million litres of glyphosate are being used in the country – that is 8 litres per inhabitant.

Argentina is also amongst the top ten countries in the world with the highest rate of deforestation. In the last 25 years, around 30,000 square miles of Argentinian forests have been destroyed. This is roughly the size of Scotland. In 2007, due to the pressure of environmental organisations and local communities, a law was passed to protect the national forest. Its implementation, nevertheless, has been very poor, and deforestation has continued at the same rate.

As mentioned, indigenous communities are significantly affected by this economic model, given that many tend to live in land that extractivist business find desirable. They are also particularly dependant on their ecosystems to live according to their culture and traditions. In the 1990s, Argentina, like many other countries in Latin America, implemented a series of special constitutional and legal reforms. These stipulated, among other things, that the right of indigenous people to live in their ancestral lands should be recognised by the state; that they need to be consulted on matters that affect them; and that their consent should be a requirement for any project to be carried out in their territories. However, as with the aforementioned forest law, this legislation is rarely respected. The national and local governments, regardless of the party in power, usually turn their faces away from these indigenous populations whose habitat is being destroyed by corporations, and who are suffering the poisoning effects of extractive activities – be it logging, surface mining, oil and gas or agricultural production.

In sum, El Árbol negro portrays a very urgent and local situation that is affecting Argentina and in Latin America. But the film is also universal in its message and urgency. The story could be located in any place in the world in which the logic of global capitalism poses similar threats to common people and the environment. It could be the fracking sites in Lancashire or Yorkshire, indeed. In this sense, the film resonates with the tension between local activism in communities around the world and the state that supports corporate agenda. However, the film is not just a denunciation of the struggles of the Toba (Qom) people. It is also a very poetic portrayal of a culture that is very much alive, not only in a specific epistemology and vision of the world, partly expressed in myths – but also in a fruitful relationship with modernity.