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The 'people of the land'

November 2003

The plight of the indigenous nation of Mapuche Indians and the systematic abuse of their human rights by the 'democratic' government of Chile is virtually unknown in the west. It seems that indigenous peoples only attract the attention of the 'civilised' west, when matters get out of hand and it becomes impossible to continue to suppress information - recent events in Bolivia are only the most recent example.

Yet, the Mapuche story is steeped in a rich history, a proud culture and a unique spiritual mystique that dates centuries, from well before the first European explorations of South America. But it's also a story about struggle and conflict; a struggle for the very survival of the Mapuche culture and a conflict between the rights of an indigenous nation conquered by force and the subsequent assimilationist policies employed by the nexus of corporate state power. True to form, western mainstream media have yet to bring these matters to our attention.

The Mapuche people consider themselves to be a people of the land, which derives from the indigenous language, Mapudungun -- 'mapu' means land and 'che' means people -- and they number in excess of 1.3 million people, living throughout the Southern Cone of South America, in what is now Chile and Argentina, making them the largest ethnic minority group in both states. In Chile, the Mapuche people make up almost 10 per cent of the population.


To understand the modern day conflict, a brief look at its history is necessary. In 1641 the Mapuche nation signed the treaty of Killin with the Spanish Empire, in which the Spanish recognised the territorial autonomy of the Mapuche nation. From this date, for more than two centuries, the Bio Bio river was accepted as a natural frontier and the lands to the south of this boundary as the territory of the Mapuche nation in full exercise of its right to self-determination.

The treaty was signed as a result of the Spanish Empire's failure to defeat the Mapuche in battle. Reynaldo Mariqueo, a Mapuche Indian who fled his native homeland whilst Pinochet was in power and who now lives in exile in the UK, believes this event is without parallel in the history of South American indigenous peoples:

"The Killin treaty, and numerous other treaties signed with the Mapuche nation during two centuries of diplomatic relations [with Spain], makes the Mapuche people stand out simply because we were the first and only indigenous nation on the continent whose sovereignty and autonomy was legally recognised".

By the 1880's, and with a rise in the political and military power of both Chile and Argentina, two separate 'undeclared wars' were waged against the Mapuche nation, ultimately resulting in the conquest of their territory in 1885. With the armed conquest of the Mapuche people complete, the Chilean and Argentine military forces set out to weaken potential insurrection, which left thousands of innocent Mapuche Indians slaughtered. For those who survived the slaughter, families were separated and sent forcibly to work as servants for white European settlers - a harbinger of the racism still prevalent within Chilean society. In true Orwellian style, these events are recorded in official Chilean history as the "pacification of Araucania"

In 1902, under British arbitration, the Chilean-Argentinean border was finally agreed upon but this served to partition the ancestral Mapuche homeland and divided Mapuche communities yet further.

Mainstream media

The present day conflict is rarely, if ever, reported in the west and when western mainstream media and Chile do meet it tends to mean only one of two things; either exuberant praise for Chile's economic performance since democracy was ushered in, following the fall of Pinochet's regime, in 1990, or the historical human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime. In their own right, these have been, largely, fair observations but the ability of mainstream media to ignore or suppress the suffering of the Mapuche people only serves to lend credence to those who argue that mainstream media acts as little more than a mouthpiece for elitist agendas.

Whilst the Mapuche people, like the vast majority of civilised society, celebrated the downfall of the Pinochet regime, democratic rule has done little to improve conditions for the Mapuche nation.

The Mapuche people have been forced to learn about democracy the hard way; their ancestral land has been expropriated and damaged by wealthy transnational corporations; their human rights continue to be violated; and now, the blatant abuse of anti-terrorism laws brought in under Pinochet's dictatorship, their right to democratic protest is being silenced, often with abject aggression. All of this is, according to proponents of the free market, in the 'interest' of progress, industrialisation, privatisation and development.

Indigenous peoples and international institutions

It's ironic that the conflict has reached new heights during a period in which the profile of indigenous peoples rights has increased dramatically, within the major international institutions. In 1989 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted 'Convention 169', the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which, whilst criticised by some activists for its limited scope, recognises the distinct rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. In 1994, the United Nations (UN) introduced 'The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995 - 2004)', which was followed, in July 2000, by the creation of a 'UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues'. A formal UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples has been drafted by the 'Working Party on Indigenous Peoples' and is currently under review by human rights experts at the 'UN's Commission of Human Rights (UNCHR)'.

Chilean domestic law

Despite the emergence of a more advanced thinking about indigenous rights within organisations like the UN, successive Chilean governments have proven to be behind the pace of such advancement just as they have proven impotent in passing and enforcing effective laws that uphold indigenous rights. It is remarkable that Chile is one of only three Latin American states to have failed to ratify ILO convention 169.

Chile has, however, passed domestic legislation (Law 19.253) which purports to protect the political, education, land, cultural and development rights of indigenous people, but in practice this law does little to protect the Mapuche people, in part because the strength of the domestic legislation was significantly diminished before it was finally enshrined in 1993 and in part, because of ineffectual enforcement.

The failure of the Chilean constitution to recognise the distinct cultural and political identities of indigenous peoples highlights a clear sense of contempt for the people they conquered with force. To his credit, President Lagos has backed a proposal to amend the constitution to recognise the existence of indigenous peoples, but sadly the Chilean Senate has twice rejected the motion.

Hydroelectric dams

In Chile's ninth region, on the Bio Bio river, Mapuche communities and activists have been fighting a long running battle with the Spanish power giant Endesa, one of the largest private companies in Chile. Back in June 1997 the $600 million hydroelectric Ralco dam project was approved by the Chilean government's environmental office, but this ambitious project, which was one of six proposed in Chile by Endesa, created many problems for the Mapuche people and their ancestral land and created a tension between Chile's indigenous law and energy laws.

A network of environmental activists, indigenous groups and NGO's claim the Ralco project will result in a form of 'eco-cide', virtually destroying the sensitive eco-systems that surround the Bio Bio river. The 155-metre high dam will create a reservoir with a capacity of 1.2 billion cubic metres of water, which will flood 3,467 hectares of land. The results of Endesa's endeavours, according to activists, will not only help destroy the environment but also endanger the history and culture of the Mapuche peoples. Environmentalists deny Endesa's claim that the dams are necessary to meet the country's growing energy demands, by pointing to the conclusion of the Chilean Energy Department, who suggested the Ralco dam need not be built because Chile will not require the additional energy.

The fact that the Chilean authorities did little to prevent the project serves only to highlight the government's failure to enforce the law that was purported to provide protection of indigenous lands. The Indigenous Law (Law 19.253) established norms for the protection, promotion and development of ethnic communities. Article 13 states that Indigenous land cannot be "…annexed, mortgaged, levied or repossessed except for Indigenous communities or persons . . .". Chile's failure to ratify ILO Convention 169, effectively prevented hundreds of Mapuche living on land affected by the dam from participating in the process that led to the decision to support the construction project.

In June of this year, only a handful of families opposed to the dam remained defiant and continued living in their ancestral homes. But a judge's recent decision, ruled that Endesa could continue its work despite the ongoing disputes with the Mapuche landowners.

The UN special envoy on indigenous rights, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, said, in a report published in January 2003, that Chile's authorities have consistently supported business interests over the well-being of the Pehuenche (the particular Mapuche tribe of that region). Stavenhagen's report also noted that two directors from the National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI) were sacked due to their opposition to the construction project and concluded that the dam creates a threat to the traditional Pehuenche way of life.

Commercial tree farming

Despite recently securing an agreement with two of the largest commercial tree farming companies in Chile, for far-reaching environmental commitments for the protection of Chile's native forests, the environmental impact of commercial tree farming has acted as a catalyst for a rise in Mapuche activism in recent years. Ancestral Mapuche land has been expropriated, by tree farming companies, leading to the plantation of thousands of monoculture eucalyptus and pine trees where there were once native forests. The commercial tree plantations are processed into lumber and paper pulp, mainly for export to North America, Asia and Europe.

According to the environmental group ForestEthics, most of the plantations are species native to California or Australia and the density of the plantations cause ground water to disappear. Often, the trees grow so close together that wildlife can't move between them. In contrast, native trees are likely to be extinct outside of national forests by 2015, according to one report published by the Chilean government.

Misuse of anti terrorism laws to suppress legitimate dissent

The Chilean authorities have detained many Mapuche activists, invoking anti-terrorism laws, which deprive detainees of the right to a speedy trial and allow prosecutors to withhold evidence from defence lawyers. On a recent fact-finding mission to Chile, Special Envoy to the United Nations, Rodolf Stavenholder, told journalists that Chile was misusing anti-terrorism laws in order to suppress legitimate dissent amongst Mapuche activists. There is ample evidence to support this claim.

In November 2002, Chilean police shot dead a seventeen year old Mapuche activist, Edmundo Lemun, during a peaceful protest at tree farms in Ercilla. In response, hooded Mapuche activists armed with shotguns and molotov cocktails invaded a Mininco workers' camp outside the town, setting fire to the living quarters. There have subsequently been a number of protests and acts against the timber companies, many of which have ended in violence. Whilst an investigation, into Lemun's death, was launched by the authorities, activists and community leaders accused investigators of attempting to conceal ballistics evidence that proved the responsibility of Carabineros in the shooting.

In the UK, in September 2003, a London court granted political asylum to two Chilean police officers (Carabineros), alleged victims of death threats and other forms of persecution on the part of their superior officers in the Chilean police force. Jose Pino Ubilla and his wife Miram Solís Fernández fled Chile after expressing objections, to their superior officers, about institutional brutality by the police towards minority groups, including the Mapuche. In papers submitted during their appeal for asylum it was reported that Pino and Solis witnessed the torture of arrested individuals and even police-authorised killings.
In October 2003, Patricia Troncoso, a Mapuche activist arrested and imprisoned for 'terrorist association', began a hunger strike whilst awaiting trial. She is accused of burning property belonging to a forestry company; an act more plausibly associated with a belligerent teenager than a terrorist who threatens the security of the State. The hunger strike marks a dramatic intensification of the conflict and only time will tell whether - and to what degree - Troncoso's action will achieve its desired affect.

European Free Trade Agreement

Throughout Europe, the Mapuche conflict is forcing people to sit up and take notice, albeit at a frustratingly slow pace, with support groups springing up in the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and France. This has been brought about, in part at least, by the recently signed EU/Chile free trade agreement, which has angered activists, because whilst EU principles clearly support human rights, it rather disingenuously deemed it acceptable to formalise trade agreements with Chile whilst simultaneously glossing over Chile's human rights record.

Graham Watson, a British Member of the European Parliament, believes the EU/Chile Free Trade Agreement "…will lead to an increase in prosperity for Chileans, and that this, in turn, will lead to higher standards of respect for human rights…". Notably, Watson makes no reference to how those higher standards of respect for human rights will come about. In any event, one only needs to look to Israel, which recorded almost double Chile's per capita GDP in 2002, to realise that higher standards of respect for human rights do not naturally follow from increased prosperity.

The human family

In August 2003, as the UN celebrated the 'International Day of the World's Indigenous People', Secretary-General Kofi Annan, warned that indigenous peoples still faced threats to their lives and destruction of their "belief systems, cultures, languages and ways of life." Rather poignantly, he added "…the human family is a tapestry of enormous beauty and diversity. The indigenous peoples of the world are a rich and integral part of that tapestry…".

If the Chilean government has any desire to retain or nurture this rich and integral part of the human family then it must reverse those policies that seek to destroy the Mapuche nation. To do this, Chile must recognise and respect the rights of its indigenous peoples and it must put an end to the subordination of those rights to the profit hungry model of neo-liberalism.

Only then can the 'people of the land' value the virtues of democracy.

by Kurt Perry, freelance writer and Mapuche activist

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