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

On March 12, Francisco Huenchumilla—governor of the south-central Araucanía region—apologized to the country’s indigenous Mapuche people for “the theft of [their] lands by the state.” But the Mapuche people want more than an apology.

by Sam Edwards
Apr 15 2014, 12:45pm

Mapuche protesters at a 2013 demonstration for Mapuche rights

One day after Michelle Bachelet was inaugurated as the president of Chile, a local governor made a historic apology. On March 12, Francisco Huenchumilla—governor of the south-central Araucanía region—apologized to the country’s indigenous Mapuche people for “the theft of [their] lands by the state.”

The governor was referring to the annexation of Mapuche land in Araucanía more than 100 years ago by the young Republic of Chile—land that they had defended from Spanish conquistadors for centuries beforehand. Since then, tensions in the region have occasionally spilled into violence, claiming lives on both sides. Recognizing the role the state has played in this, Huenchumilla said the area “was born and has developed as a divided society.”

Protests, arson attacks, armed resistance movements, and police brutality are, understandably, the headline-grabbing talking points of the struggle. But visiting the areas at the center of the dispute reveals a daily reality of a once autonomous people struggling against poverty, scarred by the usual story of colonial abuse and the years of marginalization that followed.

While many Mapuche have migrated to large cities in search of better opportunities, traditional communities remain on small tracts of land among the spectacular rolling hills and deep blue lakes of Araucanía and its surrounding regions. Over the last two decades, the Mapuche—the country’s largest indigenous minority, representing approximately 10 percent of the total population—have renewed efforts to reclaim land appropriated by successive governments, establish political autonomy, and preserve their culture and language from assimilation and extinction.

With the end of 17 years of oppressive dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet—and the country’s return to democracy in 1990—progress has been made and some land returned, but many in the Mapuche community are exasperated by the slow pace of reform and the continued heavy presence of big industry on ancestral territory—grievances backed up by the United Nations, the US State Department, and a raft of human-rights organizations.

Police use a water cannon against Mapuche rights demonstrators.

The consequences of this political impasse have become plainly obvious as protests and demands descend into increasingly hard-line activism and low-level insurgency.

Gonzalo Arenas was a congressman in the region for eight years. There is little love lost between his right-wing Democratic Union Party (UDI) and Mapuche groups campaigning for land reform and political autonomy, but Arenas is adamant that the blame for the current conflict not be attributed solely to the hard-line activists branded “extremists” or “terrorists” by other conservative politicians.

“All governments have dealt with indigenous populations, and [specifically] the Mapuche, as a marginal issue or exclusively as a security problem,” he told me. “Much of the responsibility for the increase of violence, for the growing numbers resorting to this tactic, and for the greater radicalization we have seen lies with the systematic negligence of governments to deal with the Mapuche problem.”

The latest incarnation of periodic attempts to re-establish Mapuche identity and political autonomy resurfaced in the 1990s. As the repression of dictatorship was lifted, indigenous communities began to look for new ways to reclaim territory lost since the conquest of the Mapuche nation by the Chilean state in the late 19th century.

Mijael Carbone, a spokesman for the Mapuche Territorial Alliance (ATM), said that dialogue has not worked and that the only effective solution for indigenous communities to reclaim land taken from them decades earlier is to occupy it. “The communities that maintain ‘peaceful’ relations never reach a resolution [and reclaim appropriated land],” he told me, adding that this disparity in tactics has allowed hostile politicians to portray those employing activism as an extremist minority. “In effect, this means communities that demand control of their territory are [justified] as meriting greater repression,” he said.

According to Carbone, occupation of appropriated land—now typically in the hands of large forestry corporations or the descendants of largely Northern European immigrants brought over by the state to “colonize” the region at the turn of the century—is the only viable option to allow Mapuche groups to rise out of poverty and return to a traditional way of life.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is on board with the idea of large-scale land reform, and some landowners have reacted by stockpiling weapons, retaliating by force, and allegedly forming at least one anti-Mapuche paramilitary group. In 2009, an anonymous figure claiming to belong to the anti-indigenous, Commando Hernán Trizano, told press the vigilante group was in possession of explosives, planning to target Mapuche leaders engaged in land disputes and “blow them sky-high.”

Footage from a Mapuche protest

An escalation of violence has seen the deaths of numerous Mapuche activists—many in clashes with police, but with others remaining unsolved. Meanwhile, feuds with hostile landowners have escalated. In a notorious 2013 attack, masked assailants set fire to the property of an elderly couple who owned land where a young Mapuche activist had been shot by police years earlier. Both died in the blaze. The only person to be convicted was a Mapuche spiritual leader, although he maintains his innocence.

While land occupation may play a role in escalating tensions, for José Marimán—political scientist, sometime government advisor, and a leading authority on Mapuche issues—the abandonment of activism under current conditions would simply mean further subjugation of indigenous rights and a continuation of past injustice for those dispossessed decades earlier.

“[Historically], the peace that the usurpers want has always been imposed by the violence of weapons, the assassination of Mapuche leaders, torture, rape, and exile,” he explained. “In this context of peace and inaction, problems are ‘resolved’ legally, but justice remains in the hands of those who have colonized the Mapuche and have a deplorable record—since before the dictatorship era at least—of ruling against indigenous interests.”

Carbone is no stranger to the realities of activism; both the ATM and his own Temucuicui community are at the forefront of land occupations in the region, while the latter has been named as a principal target of paramilitaries. He has been arrested countless times and went on the lam in 2012 in the face of charges of attempted murder of a police officer. The case was later dropped after the Supreme Court found flaws in the original investigation.

I visited the self-declared Autonomous Community of Temucuicui in late 2013. The area dubbed the “red zone” of the conflict by the mainstream press is a patchwork of indigenous-owned small holdings, large estates, and managed forests near the agricultural town of Ercilla, around 350 miles south of the capital. Travelling to Temucuicui takes you down a myriad of rough paths and rural tracks, past seemingly innocuous rural scenery.

A Mapuche protester in 2013

As the truck lurched along the track, blaring out a CD of hypnotic, percussive Mapuche music, my guides pointed out fields, initially indistinguishable to the outsider. Each one, however, has a definitive status, marked by its condition as either land “usurped” decades previously, recently recuperated, or at the center of current disputes, occupied day and night by a rotating guard of community members. Armed police units can be spotted protecting nearby forestry plantations, their heavy body armor, helmets, and rifles a stark contrast to the scenery behind them.

Seemingly inconsequential strips of land are monitored by CCTV cameras mounted on tall poles—their gaze even more intrusive outside the familiar urban setting. Watching this deserted field is a barrack of police officers hidden behind the tree line.

One of the major demands of Mapuche groups is the immediate reduction of the heavy police presence around many communities in the region, which some claim effectively amounts to military occupation.

“The presence of police and the repression that comes with that has seriously affected our daily life. They interrupt the peace of communities with check-ups and even beatings. People involved with activism cannot come and go freely. We are highly restricted and suffer daily persecution,” said Carbone. “This has drastically changed things, and I think we will see significant consequences because communities aren’t happy with this level of police presence and technology on Mapuche territory.”

Police presence has been a reality for years under both right-leaning and center-left governments, including Bachelet’s previous administration. However, for Arenas, the high numbers of police in the area is not a catalyst for conflict but a necessary precaution to avoid further escalation.

A burning barricade at a Mapuche protest

“A strong police presence is necessary, because what we cannot permit is that people take justice into their own hands. For example, when non-Mapuches feel that there aren’t police to protect them in the face of attack, these people begin to arm themselves and look for private justice, and the situation becomes some kind of Wild West scenario,” Arenas said. “When people don’t feel safe they take defense into their own hands and continue the vicious circle of violence. That’s why, although it may upset [Mapuche] communities, this presence guarantees that people feel protected.”

A measure to reassure a fearful public is also how Arenas describes the controversial anti-terrorism law and its application to the crimes of those involved in Mapuche resistance movements by successive governments since the early 2000s. While charging suspects as terrorists—allowing the use of secret witnesses and much more significant prison sentences—has been hailed by some of those affected by the conflict in the Araucanía Region, Bachelet has already taken steps to reform the law, despite employing it several times in her first term.

Added to Huenchumilla’s apology, this gesture has sparked tentative hope of progress. However, the long history of conflict over this territory weighs heavily on the debate, and the creation of the multi-ethnic, autonomous state that many are calling for is a long way from being a political reality.

The hard-line Mapuche organization Coordinadora Angol-Malleco (CAM) responded to Huenchumilla’s statement with suspicion. They cited the presence of numerous members of the current administration in previous governments that had overseen the formative years of the resurgent conflict and the killings of several activists by police. Considered a terrorist organization by the state, CAM spokesmen have a habit of being arrested after appearing in public, so the group now communicate through press releases.

“We understand real measures: the demilitarization of Mapuche territory, liberty for Mapuche political prisoners, and the start of a real process of returning land to communities based on our ancestral territory,” reads the statement. “Regardless of whichever government is in power, we will continue to exercise our right to rebellion and self-defence, employing revolutionary violence against the capitalists investing in Wallmapu [Mapuche territory].”

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