Mapuche Indians in Chile Struggle to Take Back Forests
By LARRY ROHTER
The New York Times - August 11, 2004
TRAIGUÉN, Chile - Before the
conquistadors arrived, and even for centuries afterward, the lush,
verdant forests of southern Chile belonged
to the Mapuche people. Today, though, tree farms stretch in all directions
here, property of timber companies that supply lumber to the United
States, Japan and Europe.
But now the Mapuches, complaining of false land titles and damage to
the environment and their traditional way of life, are struggling to
take back the land they say is still theirs. As their confrontation with
corporate interests has grown more violent, Chile's nominally Socialist
government has sought to blunt the indigenous movement by invoking a
modified version of an antiterrorist law that dates from the dictatorship
of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 1973 to 1990.
Despite international protests, 18 Mapuche
leaders are scheduled to go on trial soon, accused under a statute
that prohibits "generating
fear among sectors of the population." The charges stem from a series
of incidents during the past seven years in which groups of Mapuches
have burned forests or farmhouses or destroyed forestry equipment and
"Clearly, this is a conflict in which some fairly serious crimes
have been committed," said Sebastian Brett, a representative of
Human Rights Watch in Chile. "But that does not mean you can call
the people involved terrorists. These are crimes, not against human life
or liberty, but basically against property, and they stem from a wide
sense of grievance among the Mapuches that they have illegally been deprived
of their lands."
To many Mapuches, the current dispute is
merely the continuation of a conflict that has existed since the arrival
of the conquistadors in
the 16th century. Retreating south of the Bío-Bío River,
they succeeded not only in fending off Spanish control but also in having
their independence formally recognized in treaties, and were only incorporated
into the Chilean state in the 1880's as the result of a series of violent
After that, in a conscious imitation of the American method of dealing
with indigenous peoples, Chile put the Mapuches onto reservations so
that German, Italian and Swiss colonists could settle in the region.
But by the 1920's, policies had changed, and the Mapuches lost title
to all but a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands through procedures
they now describe as illegal.
"From the moment the Chilean state annexed Mapuche territory, and
used violence to do so, the rule of law has never existed south of the
Bío-Bío," said Aucán Huilcamán, a leader
of the Council of All Lands, a Mapuche group based in the city of Temuco,
south of here. "The state refuses to recognize that we are a people
with rights that were in force even before Chile existed as a nation
and which remain in force today."
During the past decade, "the Mapuches have seen this country's
economy growing rapidly" as the result of free market policies that
have led to an export boom, said José Bengoa, Chile's leading
historian of the Mapuche, who account for one million of Chile's 15 million
people. "But they are themselves in a state of misery, with an awareness
of their situation that drives them to desperation and exasperation."
Though Japanese and Swiss interests are
active here in the region that the Mapuches call "Araucanía," both
of the main forestry companies are Chilean-owned. On land the Mapuches
claim is theirs, the
firms have planted hundreds of thousands of acres with Monterey pine
and eucalyptus trees, species that are not native to the region and that
consume large amounts of water and fertilizer.
"Many Mapuche communities have risen up and said, 'We don't want
any more tree farms here,' '' said Alfredo Seguel, a leader of a group
of young Mapuche professionals called Konapewman. "Productive fields
have been turned over to a monoculture that hurts other activities, helps
destroy the land, employs very few people and pays low wages."
Yet the signs of a landscape transformed
are everywhere here. Highways with billboards that proclaim, "If the forest grows, Chile grows;
obey the forestry law," run for mile after mile past fragrant
groves of trees that are uniformly spaced and nearly identical in height.
Chilean exports of wood to the United States,
almost all of which come from this southern region, are about $600
million a year and rising.
Though an international campaign led by the conservation group Forest
Ethics resulted in the Home Depot chain and other leading wood importers
agreeing late last year to revise their purchasing policies, to "provide
for the protection of native forests in Chile,'' some militant Mapuche
leaders are not satisfied.
"The big companies and the big landowners are usurpers who profit
at our expense, and we want them to leave," complained José Huenchunao,
a Mapuche leader in an area east of here who is among the 18 scheduled
to go on trial. "We are a people who have been defrauded, who
have exhausted every legal means of attaining redress, and we have
to recover what was stolen from us, even if that means incorporating
violence within our struggle."
In an effort to defuse tensions, a special
government body, the Commission for Historical Truth and New Treatment,
issued a report late last year
calling for drastic changes in Chile's treatment of its indigenous people,
more than 80 percent of whom are Mapuches. The recommendations included
the formal recognition of political and "territorial" rights
for Indian peoples, as well as efforts to promote their cultural identity.
President Ricardo Lagos has hailed the document
as an effort to "correct
the errors, at times inevitable, that the Chilean state committed in
its treatment of ethnicities." But neither Mapuche leaders nor forestry
interests seem satisfied, and despite Mr. Lagos's promise to push for
adoption of the measures, the Chilean Congress has taken no action.
Some Mapuche leaders, including Mr. Huilcamán, who was a member
of the commission, oppose the report because they think it "a colonialist
document" that does not go far enough. But landowners believe that
the self-determination provisions of the plan will encourage Indian uprisings
like the one in Chiapas, in Mexico, or even lead to separatist Indian
movements like those that have sprung up in neighboring Bolivia, Peru
"Carried to an extreme, this could lead to the dismemberment of
the Chilean state," said Juan Agustín Figueroa, a former
agriculture minister and Supreme Court justice who is a leading spokesman
for property holders in this region. "National unity is a great
achievement, won at great cost, and it is folly to talk of granting autonomy
to 'Mapuche territory.' "
Mr. Figueroa's family has owned a 3,000-acre
farm here since the 1940's and he said that "we always had a good neighbor policy with the
Mapuches." But late in 2001, after what he described as "first
threats and then forest fires, a group of radical Mapuches burned down" a
manor house on the property.
Though he said he recognized that Mapuche
organizations had nothing in common with "groups like Al Qaeda or those in Iraq," Mr.
Figueroa argued that use of the antiterrorism statute against them was
appropriate on both judicial and political grounds. But it is precisely
that two-pronged campaign against the Mapuches that worries their advocates.
"In the 1990's, the Mapuche cause had more support among the Chilean
population than it does today," said Rodrigo Lillo, a lawyer who
has defended Mapuche leaders in military tribunals. "By using the
terrorist law, the government has not only succeeded in disarticulating
Mapuche groups, it has also robbed them of the moral prestige and sympathy
they once enjoyed."
Source: The New York Times
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