IPS Inter Press Service News Agency


Mapuches Want to Shape Their Own Future

María Cecilia Espinosa

SANTIAGO, Nov 10 (Tierramérica) - The Mapuches, the largest indigenous group in Chile, are organising to vindicate their ancestral rights in the framework of a growing movement of native peoples throughout Latin America.

Numbering around 700,000 in a country with a population of 15 million, the Mapuches demand constitutional recognition as the nation's original peoples and say they are seeking a form of self-determination for their future and their culture, without threatening the integrity of the Chilean state.

”For reasons of segregation, discrimination, poverty or resistance, unlike other indigenous communities that have undergone processes of integration, the Mapuches have maintained their ways of life more purely. Anyone can see this who has any contact with southern Chile, where they live,” José Bengoa, author of ”History of the Mapuche People”, told Tierramérica.

Conflict and misunderstandings between the broader Chilean society and the indigenous groups heated up in the past decade. Young Mapuche leaders emerged to denounce that their people not only confronted poverty, but also that their people were not recognised as a community.

The indigenous movement turned more violent, with land takeovers, demonstrations against the construction of the Ralco hydroelectric dam on the upper Bío-Bío River, and repeated burnings of the lumber companies' tree plantations.

The impact of the lumber industry puts limits on and alters the traditional economic, social and cultural lives of the Mapuches, say indigenous leaders.

The more radical members of the indigenous community have tried to use force to recover the Mapuche lands that have been appropriated, and aim to return to their ancestral forms of coexisting with their natural environment.

The individuals involved in these acts have been accused of terrorism, which has allowed the authorities to apply Chile's Domestic Security Act.

The history of land seizures, abandonment and resistance began five centuries ago with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Arauco War.. In 1881, through the ”pacification of Araucanía”, the state tried to ”civilise” the Mapuches.

That meant appropriating their lands, reducing their communities and subjecting them to non-indigenous colonisers.

In the early 1970s, the demands of the Mapuche movement were articulated in the agrarian reform of the Salvador Allende government (1970-1973), but at the end of that decade, the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship halted the process.

A decree by the military regime divided up the indigenous people's lands and put it on the market, establishing that ”once the community is liquidated (with regards to land possession), they will no longer be indigenous lands, and their inhabitants no longer indigenous.”

After the dictatorship, closer ties were created between the Patricio Aylwin administration (1990-1994) and the Mapuche people, and in 1993 the Indigenous Law was enacted, creating the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI).

The guiding principle was to recognize Chilean society as ”pluri-ethnic and multicultural”, and to seek ”that all institutions -- political, economic, and social, in health and education -- reflect the multicultural reality that underlies the social basse,” Aroldo Cayún, CONADI national director, said recently.

The Indigenous Law expressed the effort of the state to ”recognize that it should offer reparations to all Indians for the harm caused by Western civilization, the loss of lives, the persecution, the expropriations and confinements,” engineer Andrés Millaleo, CONADI development advisor, told Tierramérica.

But the statute did not include any sort of self-governance, not even in relative terms.

Today, the Mapuches stress that they are not looking for independence, but rather a form of self-determination that does not challenge the authority of the Chilean state.

On Oct. 12, on the 511th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas, a thousand Mapuches marched through Santiago to protest against the official policies in regards to their community.

They demanded the release of the Indians who are in prison on charges of illicit association and for setting forest fires in the south.

They also demanded that Oct. 12, known as 'Día de la Raza' or Day of Hispanity, no longer be a day of celebration, given that for Indians the date marks the beginning of the Spanish colonial conquest. They prefer ”Day of Mapuche Resistance”.

(* María Cecilia Espinosa is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published Nov. 1 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)



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