The Mapuche: The People of the Land and their struggle to retain it

The Mapuche: The People of the Land and their struggle to retain it

An enduring conflict of land and indigenous rights dating back to the 16th Century

Sharing their home with a six billion dollar timber industry, the Mapuche people of Aracaunia are the poorest in Chile. After centuries of land wars and inequality, the Mapuches, meaning “people of the land,” are beginning to break the silence, uniting to fight to get their land back and get the same rights and privileges as non-Mapuches.

After spending a semester on exchange in Chile and studying the Mapuche culture, I was intrigued at the serious lack of recognition the Chilean government has given the Mapuche and how they have mistreated them so poorly. While New Zealand has faced its own issues in dealings with our indigenous, the Maori, we are clearly well ahead of many Latin American countries in this respect. It all began when the Spanish came to Chile in 1541 and began to take land off the Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in Chile, in their quest to conquer more of Latin America. The Mapuche resisted becoming part of the Chilean state until 1880, when the Chilean Army invaded and occupied Mapuche territory. It was then that the majority of the Mapuche’s land was taken from them, creating the on-going land conflict that continues today.

Things started to look more positive for the Mapuche when Salvador Allende came into power from 1970–1973. Allende passed an Indigenous Law, officially defining “indigenous” and recognising the Mapuche people as an indigenous culture. He also began to restore communal lands of the Mapuches.

However, in 1973, the military coup organised by Augusto Pinochet to overthrow Allende was one of the most savage in history. It has been reported that the new government held thousands of people in the national stadium, where the majority were killed. A National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture report found that 3,216 people were killed or went missing during 1973 and 1990, and survivors of political imprisonment and/or torture stood at 38,254.

The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet lasted from 1973 to 1990. In the 1980s, Pinochet was questioned over the deaths of South American government members and was to be tried for numerous violations of human rights, most of which occurred during his attempt to illegally supress political opponents. He was also accused of enhancing his income by swindling government funds and participating in the illegal drug and firearms trade. He continued to deny these allegations up until his death in 2006.

During Pinochet’s regime, he reduced the land of the Mapuches from 10 million hectares to 400,000. He gave land to forestry and timber companies, creating a strong economic income for Chile but creating severe poverty and economic struggles for the Mapuche people. In that last decade of Pinochet’s regime, the Mapuches began to be described as “terrorists” after attempting to take back small allocations of land from the 95 per cent that was taken from them.

Limited land has been given back to the Mapuche people but what has been returned is in such terrible condition it cannot be used to cultivate plants. Land restitution efforts have been minimal, especially considering the value of the forestry and timber industries to the government, and certain investors those ventures had, like the former Governor of Araucania, Andres Molina Magofke, who had a 42 per cent share in a timber company in the region. Araucania is also the poorest region of Chile and is regularly in drought as a result of the timber factories’ high usage of the region’s water supplies.

Attempts by the Mapuches to reclaim their land have seen them treated as “terrorists” and jailed. In 2002, a 17-year-old boy was shot dead by police as his community were occupying private land. The Chilean police are known for their violent tactics and, having seen them in action after football games, this is no surprise. The Chilean media thrives off these incidents and are renowned for creating a spectacle out of them. The words “ethnic cleansing,” “ethnic violence,” “terrorism,” and “separatism” are regularly used in articles involving Mapuche activists.

During his regime, Pinochet created a law that has been used against the Mapuche people. The law gives anonymity to witnesses in court, imposes higher sanctions and penalties for crimes and sees that people are held without bail before trial. In July 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights acquitted eight Mapuche rights’ activists, who were convicted in 2003 under this law, after finding their rights to freedom of expression, presumption of innocence and their right to question a witness had all been violated.

The current President, Michele Bachelet, promised during her first term, which was from 2006–2010, that this law would not be applied under her power. However, in 2009, Miguel Tapia Huenulef was accused of being involved in an arson attack on a private estate in Araucania. Police alleged they found a sub-machine gun, ammunition clips, two grenades and bomb-making materials. But, like every good story, there are two sides. For Huenulef’s family, the real terror came from the 50 police officers that raided their homes, racially abused them, threatened them with guns and stole money and cell phones, before planting evidence.

In her 2013 campaign for re-election, Bachelet acknowledged the law’s shortcoming and once again vowed not to use it. “We’re at a juncture to expand and recognise the rights of Chile’s indigenous communities,” said Bachelet in June 2014.

Imagine it was illegal to celebrate the New Year. Well, that is what happened to the Mapuches under Pinochet’s regime. Since the dictatorship terminated, it has been permitted to celebrate publically but, in 2013, the Santiago Times reported that political prisoners in the Manzano de Concepcion were banned from celebrating the event by the government, causing a huge uproar from Chilean human rights groups as this deprives their right to celebrate one’s culture and religion.

“We need to have respect for the victims and a sense of prudence with respect to the magnitude of the crime and the social effect that it has produced,” Interior minister Andres Chadwick stated on his disapproval of the celebrations.

The Mapuche New Year, Wu Tripantu, meaning “new sunrise” in Mapudungun, occurs on 24 June at the start of the winter Solstice. They believe that the New Year begins with the cycle of the earth as, from this period onwards, plants begin to bloom, marking the shift in seasons. Coincidentally, the main day of celebration on 24 June falls on the National Indigenous People’s Day.

There was a significant difference in the celebrations in 2014 as President Michele Bachelet attended a ceremony in Santiago, acknowledging the debt the Chilean state owe to the indigenous people. She announced the expansion of indigenous political representation, strengthening of institutions and facilitating the process of returning disputed ancestral territory back to the Mapuches of Araucania. This marked a significant development for the Mapuche and many Mapuche are impatiently awaiting evidence of fulfilment of these promises.

The Mapuche language, Mapudungun, has still not been recognised as an official language, despite 11.4 per cent (1,508,722) of the Chilean population identifying themselves as Mapuche (although the 2012 census has to be redone, as in 2013 it was realised that 10 per cent of the population was missed) and in 2007, it was estimated 30–40 per cent of the Mapuche spoke Mapudungun. Comparatively speaking, English, Maori and New Zealand Sign language are all official languages of New Zealand, with Maori being added in 1987.

The Mapuche are still pleading for bilingual education nationwide. A pilot bilingual education program was implemented in Temuca and 400 schools throughout Chile are bilingual. However, Mapuche Professor Elisa Loncon of the Catholic University of Santiago believes they are restricted by quality control and a lack of specialists.

“They need changes in the constitution so the demand for linguistic rights can advance because the non-indigenous decide for us. The Mapuche language does not hold the same status and social prestige of Castilian (Spanish),” believes Loncon.

During my travels around Santiago, I got chatting to a taxi driver, Carlos. He is Mapuche and had come to the city to make money so that his parents could afford to keep their farm and live off the little land they had left. 30 years ago, while my parents were probably rocking around in denim jeans, lycra and polyester shirts, Carlos had never worn or seen clothing that was not made of wool. He still recalls stories of his grandparents fighting over their land.

“The laws don’t favour the Mapuches,” he told me, with great resent.

Integration into Chilean society for the Mapuches has been difficult and they are usually made to keep to themselves in the outer suburbs of the cities.

Racism towards the Mapuches is still a common occurrence, especially in middle- to high-class Chilean society. A good friend of mine was invited for dinner at her father’s friend’s house. His cuico (posh) wife started enquiring about what she was studying. When my friend told her that she was studying anthropology and was doing a paper in Mapuche culture, she shrivelled her nose and obnoxiously said “what’s the point in that?”

It is this society that has made it nearly impossible for Mapuches to integrate into the Chilean society and attempt to mend the bridges that were burnt so many years ago. There is little support towards the Mapuche and they are generally expected to keep to their own cultures and people. Mapuche women are often hired as maids for the upper class non-indigenous Chileans but besides that, there is little interaction between the two cultures.

The media’s influence contributes to the negative perception of the Mapuche. There are very few Mapuche publications that allow them to express themselves and are often excluded from sharing their opinions in mainstream Chilean media, making them greatly vulnerable in their
torn society.

An interview with Claudio Barrientos, the former Director of the University Diego Portales History School, reveals that he believes the media play an important and influential role in the opinion of Mapuche in Chilean society.

“For some time the media have been creating stigmatisations and negative stereotypes of the Mapuche community members and activists. It was the media that reinforced in the public sphere the concept of “terrorist” or “terrorism” to label the protests and land claims in the indigenous movement in Araucania,” he stated.

But the Mapuche people are not going to be giving in any time soon. In the latest census, despite one million residents of Chile not being counted, the number of people who identify themselves as Mapuche had risen from 4.3 per cent in 2002 to 11.5 per cent. This is a huge step and is just one of the small things that is what Jose Bengoa calls la emergencia indigena and he believes that there is a growing surge of pride and self-identity of indigenous groups who are going to fight for what they have had taken off them.

While this could be a step in the right direction towards creating equality between the indigenous and non-indigenous, there is also a chance that it may create more tension between the different cultures.

Otago University Associate Professor of Anthopology Ruth Fitzgerald described the difficulties indigenous groups can face when they make the move from their original territory and live in the cities. “To create authenticity of their traditions and mobilise indigenous rights, they need to package their identity to get support and this can create problems.”

However, she believed that indigenous groups had definitely developed more powerover the past one hundred years, after having been ignored for a long time.

Tension has also risen over the police’s treatment towards the Mapuche. In August 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the alleged unlawful use of force by police against Mapuche. Police were accused of firing rubber bullets outside a hospital where Mapuches were gathered to visit patients who were admitted to hospital after a previous attack from police. There was no reported provocation or warning.

However, any crimes involving Carabineros (policemen) on active duty are subject to the jurisdiction of military courts. The HRW criticise this saying, “such military courts do not meet any international standards of independence and impartiality.”

This is just one of many examples of the corruption present among the Chilean police, and after having seen them in action trying to vacate street parties post-football matches, they are clearly advocates for violence and not afraid to enforce it. During a protest in October 2013, around 700 members of the Mapuche community took to the streets of Santiago to demand their land back. The protests turned violent when police used a water cannon to disperse the demonstrators. It is unnecessary acts of force by the police that bring out the violence in the Mapuche, provoking them to react and therefore succumb to violence. But for the police, this just becomes reason to arrest them and call them “terrorists.”

In a poem by Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, translated from Spanish, he writes “it is a strange form of terrorism, because terrorism creates fear and death, and here our town are apparently terrorists, that only has victims in its favour, those that have died are our people, therefore it is a strange type of terrorism.”

With the Mapuches doing all they can in their power to turn their history around and take a stand for what they deserve, the next few decades are going to be an interesting period in terms of their progress. President Bachelet is certainly aware that changes need to be made in respect to the government’s treatment of its indigenous people, as they are certainly far behind on meeting human rights expectations. There is definitely a need to revise some of the current laws that will help protect the Mapuche people, without legalising true violence and terrorism. It is not necessarily a question of Mapuche integration into Chilean society but the ability to accept Chile as a multicultural society with a strong indigenous culture.
This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2014.
Posted 1:49pm Sunday 5th October 2014 by Bella Macdonald.