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Mapuche of Chile demand self-determination

By Jaqueline Diaz and Nancy Nuñez - 3 March 1993

The indigenous Mapuche people of Chile are fighting for recognition, self-determination and land rights against a military determined to protect the profits of logging companies. Their struggle also has significant ecological ramifications.

The Mapuche of central and southern Chile number between 500,000 and 1 million -- possibly 10% of the country's population.

Mapuche means “people of the land”. The Mapuche have maintained their own religion, customs, social organisation and language, all of which are based on “belonging to the land”. About half of the Mapuche population live in urban centres and the other half on communal lands where their subsistence depends entirely on cultivation.

Widespread logging was initiated in Chile in 1986 in order to supply woodchips to industrialised countries. In this decade, it is estimated, logging will jeopardise 2.5 million hectares -- 33% of the Chilean native bush.

Especially under threat from the loggers is the Araucauria conifer, which can live between 1500 and 2000 years. It takes 600 years to develop to a state where it can be logged; trees of different sex need to be very close to each other for the tree to reproduce.

The Araucaurian bush must be protected for environmental reasons and because of its socioeconomic importance to the Mapuche people. The Araucarian forests were protected as national heritage by law in 1976, but the law was amended in 1987, allowing exploitation to occur.

Some 300 Mapuche communities of the All Lands Council (Aukin Wallmapu Ngulam) began recovering land in southern Chile in June 1992 by occupying it. The military moved in quickly, detaining 100 people. The offices of the All Lands Council were raided, the organisation was accused of being an illegal association and a restraining order was placed on members of the directorate, forbidding them to leave the country.

The land recuperations were most of all symbolic, carried out in order to draw attention to the problem of land, but the government has tried to paint them as a mere problem of illegality.

“Recuperation of the land is different to taking land”, says Aucan Huilcarman Paillana, spokesperson for the All Lands Council. “We have a right over the land that was usurped from us in 1881 by the Chilean army. We have a right over the land and a right to recover it. We are recovering what is ours.”

Mapuche resistance to the European invasion began with the first expedition into their lands by Diego de Almargo in 1530. The Spanish firepower steadily pushed the Mapuche further and further south over many decades of fierce confrontations.

In 1641, a frontier between the Spanish and the Mapuche was established along the Bío-Bío River, which signified explicit recognition of the existence of the Mapuche nation. But this agreement was violated through the incursion of missionaries and the military. Also, throughout the centuries, Mapuche land has been encroached on by unscrupulous businessmen and landlords through outright deceit, often in collaboration with corrupt officials.

The bloodiest war occurred in the 1880s, when a new colonisation plan was accompanied by a genocidal attack against the Mapuche. This sealed the fate of the Mapuche people within the territory of the Chilean state. From then on the Mapuche territory was limited to its current boundaries. From that time there has been a process of cultural disintegration, economic marginalisation and social discrimination.

Within the Chilean state, the Mapuche have always been relegated to the most marginal status. During the 1960s and early 1970s efforts were initiated to improve their situation and restore the dignity of their heritage and culture.

The 1973 military coup completely reversed this process. In March 1979, the military declared Decree 2568 which called for the liquidation of the Indian communities and dissolved those programs and institutions devoted to the promotion and protection of Indian interests. The decree aimed to integrate the Mapuche into Chilean society as individuals with individual ownership of plots; they were left to compete ;without appropriate tools to do so.

Now proposed amendments to the constitution seek to recognise the nation's indigenous population, thus giving them legal status and a means to protect the lands they currently live on. However, many Mapuche groups reject the new law as not going far enough because “it doesn't solve the problem of territorial disputes, nor does it consider handing over those lands which were taken from the Mapuche through deceit or by force”.

Huilcarman says, “What we want is self-determination, which we have not had since 1881. We cannot deny the existence of Chilean society, nor can it deny our existence as Mapuche ... We are not promoting independence or a sovereign state, although as a people we have that right; it is impossible. There are established towns and a mixing of the two cultures. However, the state delegitimised us and we entered into a situation of open contradiction with the state.

“We need the understanding of Chilean society, and we need the lands to ensure the historic continuity of our people. All our culture, our language and our identity have a direct relation with the land. Our love for the land is because we come from it. If we lose the land we lose our language and slowly we will also disappear.”


Source: Green Left Weekly


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