Home | Front Page | News | Articles | Documents | Environmental | Archive | Events Calendar Links | About Us

Mapuche Indians in Chile Struggle to Take Back Forests


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 trucks.

"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 military expeditions.

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 the right 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 and Ecuador.

"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

Back to top

Home | Front Page | News | Articles | Documents | Environmental | Archive | Events Calendar | Links | About Us

Mapuche International Link. Copyright © 2002.
For all information relevant to the site, including design and
contact info,
click here