The past two decades have seen increasing conflict between Chile’s indigenous peoples—particularly the country’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche—and a series of Chilean governments over questions of land rights and development. Building on the country’s widespread ignorance of the bases and even existence of the Mapuche conflict, both dictatorial and democratic governments have used the euphemisms “dialogue” and “development” to veil the processes by which indigenous communities have been displaced by the construction of dams and highways.
Back in the 1980s, mid-way through Chile’s military dictatorship, Mapuche activists created the independent All Lands Council to press their common grievances. The Council’s demands were traditional indigenous demands: self-determination, restitution of lands, greater participation in designing policy and recognition of indigenous autonomy. By 1990 the Council began to illegally occupy plots of land. The first wave of occupations, which primarily targeted the holdings of logging companies in southern Chile, culminated in the sentencing of 140 Council leaders to prison in 1996.
The current conflict focuses on the construction of a large dam in central Chile that threatens to displace 92 Mapuche families. The dam, called the Ralco Dam, is the largest of seven similar projects on the Bío Bío River undertaken by Endesa, Chile’s Spanish-owned national electric company. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation is bankrolling the project which, because it is in the heart of Mapuche territory, required approval by the National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi). After Conadi rejected the project in light of an environmental impact assessment, the government fired two Mapuche directors and replaced them with a non-indigenous official who favored the project. Since then, Conadi has approved the project without the participation of indigenous leaders. Indignant Mapuche activists have argued that the government is in violation of the “adequate participation” requirement of the law.
The Concertación government continues to discredit Mapuche activists by labeling them “terrorists.” A militarized police force backed by the Department of the Interior operates a shady intelligence apparatus with the objective of dismantling what it has deemed “illicit associations of a criminal character.” And in recent years the nature and jurisdiction of the conflict has shifted from a political matter to a judicial one. The judicialization of the conflict is largely due to the passage in 2000 of the Penal Process Reforms in the region of Araucanía—the bastion of Mapuche resistance. Prosecutors came under tremendous pressure from the government to make the reforms seem successful by actively seeking to convict Mapuche leaders. The government wanted to demonstrate it was doing something to control the conflict. In this way the application of the reforms transformed legitimate demands for ethnic self-determination into common criminal acts of a subversive nature. Now many Mapuche leaders find themselves accused of, or arrested for “illicit association and terrorist conduct.”
There are now over 100 Mapuche political prisoners in Chilean jails, many of whom are members of the Arauco-Malleco Coordinator (CAM), a Mapuche organization made up of 160 indigenous communities. CAM—the most radicalized of the many Mapuche political groups—is systematically under attack by police and barred from negotiations with government. The principal tool of the government for jailing Mapuche activists and leaders is the Internal Security Law, a relic of the dictatorship’s authoritarian measures to legally repress dissent.
Since the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition in 1973, the status of the Mapuche has deteriorated. The UP government had made some genuine attempts to improve the miserable condition of Chile’s indigenous peoples—the Mapuche in particular. New legislation enacted in 1972 gave legitimacy to indigenous culture and legal status to Mapuche communities as landholders by recognizing a variety of collective rights regarding the holding and sale of indigenous land. The Institute for Indigenous Development (IDI)—an arm of the Ministry of Agriculture—attempted to ensure cultural development through a variety of educational programs. Legislation was passed enabling Mapuche communities to participate in the framing and direction of public programs, so that in the future they could devise their own plans, policies and projects.
After the coup, the military government quickly moved to abort all the structural gains of the Allende period, though not before numerous indigenous land-recovery movements and initiatives were born. The Pinochet regime mercilessly repressed the nascent indigenous rights movement and orchestrated the execution, arrest and exile of indigenous leaders. At the height of the military regime in 1978, a decree threatened to definitively eliminate indigenous land ownership. In the military’s ethnocentric analysis, Mapuche assimilation to Chilean society would overcome poverty and the marginalization of the southern countryside. The cornerstone of this strategy was the legal transformation of ownership—from collective to individual—of the productive unit by liberalizing land transactions.
The liberalization law, however, invigorated the Mapuche movement at the start of the 1980s. When the law was decreed, no Mapuche organizations existed on a national level; by the mid 1980s, three national coalitions were engaged in the fight against the military government’s disregard of indigenous land rights. Later, two organizations formed with ties to political parties: Newen Mapu, backed by the Christian Democratic Party, and Ad Mapu, formed in 1984 with ties to parties and social movements of the left. Ad Mapu, the more combative of the two, actively sought recovery of traditional lands with mass mobilizations.
By the end of the 1980s, as the peaceful end to military rule appeared on the horizon, Mapuche organizations approached the groups within the Concertación and pledged their support if they would recognize the right to indigenous self-determination. Mapuche organizations and then-presidential candidate Patricio Aylwin of the Concertación signed an agreement in 1989. The accord provided for constitutional recognition of indigenous self-determination, and outlined economic, social and cultural rights. The National Ethno-development Fund was created to guide the state’s indigenous policy with the active participation of indigenous organizations. The Concertación also agreed to create the National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi) and committed itself to ratifying the International Labor Organization’s Resolution 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples. Soon after the return to democracy, the Concertación seemed to be preparing the way for the implementation of the agreement. Although the transition to democracy came at a time when questions of indigenous rights had reached prominence across Latin America—or perhaps because of that somewhat threatening prominence—the implementation promised by the Concertación did not come to pass.
The year 1994, for example, brought the influence of the Mexican Zapatista movement to the world stage. Chile’s indigenous people considered the Zapatistas to be allies in a fight they had waged for years. For the Chilean government, the Zapatista movement represented a threat. The Zapatista insurrection led the government to take severe security measures to control any potential outbreaks of an armed secessionist movement in the country. The hardening of positions led to a freezing of relations between the Mapuche and Chile’s government. The government began to openly repress mobilizations for land, which up to that point were on the rise.
The construction of the Pangue and Ralco dams on the Bío Bío River was the flash point for Mapuche resistance against government appropriation of their lands in the interest of the private sector and development. The increasing militancy of Mapuche activists and widespread land occupations have raised doubts the government can control the conflict. Landowners, lumber companies and politicians—from right to center, including members of the Concertación—are demanding that the government harden its position against the continued occupation of lands.
Most disturbing is the spawning of anti-Mapuche self-defense groups or paramilitaries. Private sector groups including landowners and logging companies have been creating security groups to protect their lands from Mapuche encroachment. Landholders protest what they see as a climate of complete insecurity due to the state’s failure to protect private property. Juan Agustín Figueroa, a Concertación former Secretary of State, simply stated that “when the state fails to protect its citizens, it is indirectly inviting people to take justice into their own hands, which causes complete chaos.” He went on to say that he “would not take that route. I wouldn’t create a self-defense patrol, or anything of that type, but I fear there are people who will opt for that road. And that’s terrible.”
One group bearing striking similarities to a paramilitary organization is the self-proclaimed Hernán Trizano Command. The group justifies armed responses on behalf of the supposedly defenseless people confronting Mapuche attacks. The group takes its name from a 19th century frontier police captain famous for fighting bandits and Mapuche in Chile’s “wild west” days. Trizano is remembered on the Chilean Police web site with the following words: “He consolidated law and order in the south of the country, which allowed that fertile region to contribute to the development of our economy and the general progress of our country. Trizano and his men liberated the territories from a mass of godless and lawless antisocials.”
The government, by contrast, now uses a “carrot and stick” approach to keep the Mapuche movement paralyzed. While government officials discuss and negotiate to keep up a façade of recognition and dialogue, they simultaneously make preparations for the construction of the Ralco Dam. In 2000, on the last day of his term, President Frei signed a decree allowing the construction of the dam. At the start of 2001, trucks carrying huge electric generators advanced through Mapuche territory with an armed police escort destined for the Ralco dam project. Activists tried to halt construction of the dam by hurling sticks and stones at the slow-moving convoy from the surrounding foliage. This event marked the end of negotiations with the most radicalized sectors of the conflict.
Meanwhile, Mapuche organizations have stepped up land occupations. By the last days of the Frei administration, Mapuche organizations lacked a legitimate arena in which they could address their grievances. Mapuche leaders in positions of power were relieved of duty in government offices designed to protect indigenous rights. Conadi had become a puppet organization after the firing of the two dissident Mapuche directors whose replacement was the non-indigenous official who authorized the Ralco dam project. The current government of President Ricardo Lagos moved even further away from indigenous participation in government offices when he transferred indigenous affairs to the Ministry of National Planning.
Lagos began 2002 with a 16-point plan to begin to resolve the conflict. But to this day the government has demonstrated that its preferred method is the consistent and systematic repression of the movement. The special economic interests of corporations and the landholding oligarchy have compelled the government to put an end to the conflict at any cost. Although the Mapuche are not united in a single movement, they have succeeded in pressing an unwilling government to recognize them as a formidable force with demands that can’t be ignored.
The sudden takeover of large estates, the burning of logging company trucks and a general feeling of insecurity seemed to presage what people have begun to call the “Chilean Chiapas.” As Chile touts its burgeoning democracy, the exclusion and marginalization of Mapuche organizations assures an increasingly militant response. It is not coincidental that as Chile partners with the U.S. and European economies, the Mapuche movement threatens to rise up as the Zapatistas did with the passage of NAFTA.
The Mapuche fight is a logical response to the new colonization imposed by the seemingly endless expansion of the Chilean state, driven by private national and transnational corporations. Mapuche lands, rivers and lakes came under the covetous glare of corporations in the 1980s. The inhabitants and owners of these resources have been seen since the 19th century to be standing in the way of progress. Established by the military regime and expanded under the promise of democracy, the new pacification effort is systematically trying to quell Mapuche resistance once and for all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luis Campos Muñoz is a Chilean anthropologist. He is a professor at the Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano in Santiago, Chile. Translated from Spanish by NACLA.