Violence Between Landowners and Chile's Indigenous Is Only Getting Worse

The conflict stems from when the Chilean army invaded autonomous Mapuche land in the 19th century. Now the Mapuche are fighting violently to get it back.
March 30, 2016, 3:05pm
Imagen por Nicolás Ríos/VICE News

Sonia Navarrete, the owner of a small forestry business in Chile, was on her way home one day in June 2015 when she and her husband were ambushed by a group of five hooded men. The attackers tied them up and held them captive for an hour, after which they burned the couple's house to the ground.

Five months after that incident, Belarmino Curipán, an indigenous Mapuche farmer, was plowing a plot of land he had illegally taken over when he heard a helicopter approaching. Shortly after, he saw a drone and a group of 150 policemen. Curipán fled to the forest, and when he returned, he saw his house had been demolished with chainsaws.

Both the Navarretes and Curipán live in the outskirts of Collipulli, a town located in the central Chilean region of Araucanía, 335 miles south of the country's capital Santiago.

They both lost their homes, but they're on opposite sides of a long and seemingly endless conflict over land rights between the indigenous Mapuche and Chileans of mostly European descent.

The conflict, which has grown especially heated in recent months, has its roots in the 19th century, when the Chilean army invaded the Araucanía region, which at the time was autonomous Mapuche land. The Chileans gave the land to private owners, leaving Mapuche tribes in poverty. Police repression of Mapuche activists has also fed the conflict, as well as tensions between impoverished indigenous peasants and large landowners.

Belarmino Curipán next to the remains of his house. (Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)

In 1992, two years after the end of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's iron rule, the Mapuche issue was rekindled. The year marked the 500th anniversary of the so-called "discovery" of the Americas by Columbus, and indigenous people across the continent took the opportunity to remind the world that their ancestors were there long before the conquistadors. For the Mapuche that year kicked off the current cycle of tension, clashes, and conflict.

The conflict grew even bigger in 1997, when the Chilean government approved the construction of the Ralco Hydroelectric Plant , located in Alto Bio Bio, right in the middle of Mapuche land. This led to the first guerrilla-like attacks against police and private property in the area.

'The Mapuche people are mostly peaceful...There's only violence during specific situations'

The situation escalated over the past two years when former right-wing President Sebastián Piñera and current President Michelle Bachelet's left-wing government began using an anti-terrorist law imposed under Pinochet's regime against the Mapuche. Mapuche leaders and international NGO's have criticized the law, which according to the Inter-american Court of Human Rights, restricts some fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement and due process, because the law allows prosecutors and judges to lengthen preventive detention and use anonymous witnesses.

The situation got so bad that Bachelet visited the Araucanía area on December 29, 2015 in an attempt to calm the situation. Two days later, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos also travelled there, and spent the new year in the outskirts of Collipulli, a town located in the conflict's "red area."

"We expect this year to be calmer, for the sake of all the peaceful Chileans who live in this area," said Burgos.

So far, things have not worked out that way.

Related: Chile Is Locked in a Drawn-Out Battle with Its Indigenous Population

Sonia Navarrete stands next to her burned house.(Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)An abandoned house says "Mapuche Resistance". (Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)Juan de Dios Fuentes claimed the trucking driving past his property had attacked him days earlier. (Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)Marilí Vallejo sits in her mother's living room holding a picture of her abandoned house.(Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)Police guard one landowners property.(Photo by Nicolás Ríos/VICE News)