Front Line - Defenders of human rights defenders

Mapuche human rights defender tells Europe about plight of her people

23 November 2005

A chief of the largest indigenous group in Chile just finished a lobbying and speaker's tour in Holland, Spain and Ireland; where she told government and UN officials and NGO members of the human rights abuses her community faces.

Chief Juana Calfunao Paillalef (47) is the lonko (chief) of the Juan Paillalef Mapuche community in the Cunco District in Chile and has been leading a campaign and legal battle since 1998 to recover land belonging to her people from neighbouring landowners and to remove electricity pylons that were constructed on her community's land without its consent. Chief Paillalef has faced repeated personal persecution for her work defending the human rights of her community.

The purpose of her tour was to draw attention to the discrimination and poverty that the Mapuche people in Chile face. Many Mapuche people live without electricity or running water, and attempts to regain their ancestral land and assert their rights are often met with indifference by the courts and violence by the Chilean police and the paramilitaries formed by wealthy landowners.

Human rights groups have pointed out that the rights of the Mapuche people have been systematically violated under the guise of legality. The Chilean government often uses the anti-terrorist laws introduced under the rule of Pinochet, to punish the Mapuche's peaceful protests and to charge leaders.

Juana's struggle for her people's rights has led to her becoming a victim of intimation, persecution, torture, arbitrary incarceration, and arson. On 22 July this year Juana's house was burnt to the ground in an arson attack. Her seven-year-old daughter Relmutrai was in the simple wood and mud house at the time of the attack but managed to escape.

This was the third arson attack on Juana's home. In an attack in June 2004, the charred remains of Juana's uncle Don Pascual Namunacura Canulao, were found in the destroyed hut. Don Pascual was not staying in the house at the time and some believe he had been murdered at another location and the fire was a cover up for this alleged murder.

Juana, her husband and her three children have all been victims of physical attacks. In 2001 when she was three months pregnant she was arrested, beaten and tortured by the police. She spent three days in solitary confinement without charge and lost her unborn child. She has been stoned, her crops have been burned and her community has been intimated by gun wielding landowners.

All attempts to seek the perpetrators of these acts of violence have been stalled and ignored by the Chilean justice system and the police. The community filed a claim before the courts for the demarcation and enclosing of their lands in 1998. Seven years later they are no closer to obtaining their ancestral rights.

The Mapuche are pre-Hispanic inhabitants of central and Southern Chile and southern Argentina. Their traditional Land is a very important part of their culture. The Mapuche people were the only indigenous group in the Americas to withstand the attacks of the Incan armies and were never conquered by the Spanish. After the newly independent Chilean state fought a war of conquest with them in the late nineteenth century the Mapuche were forcibly placed in reservations.


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