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Tensions Grow Between Mapuche Groups and Chilean State

Ziryan Aziz reports as Indigenous populations in Chile adopt a variety of methods to reclaim greater autonomy and ownership of the lands of their ancestors.

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Coinciding with Dia de La Raza – formerly known as Columbus Day – the Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, declared a state of emergency in October, spanning over four provinces of Chile’s southern Biobio and Araucania regions.

The emergency measures were introduced following violent weekend clashes in Chile’s capital, Santiago, between the indigenous Mapuche group and Chile’s security forces. Similar clashes were seen in other southern cities.

Protesting for greater autonomy in Chile’s Araucania region, which is regarded as the ancestral homeland of the indigenous group, and the return of land previously stolen by former governments, the clashes left 1 person dead and 17 injured. President Pinera extended the state of emergency by another 15 days, and increased the scope of the areas covered after further clashes turned violent, resulting in even more fatalities.

Who are the Mapuche?

Accounting for roughly 9% of Chile’s population, the Mapuche are the country’s largest indigenous population. Originating from areas that are now part of southern Chile and southwestern Argentina, the Mapuche have battled and survived the Inca empire and the Spanish conquistadors. Today, the group own little ancestral land for themselves, after violent land sieges in the late 19th and 20th century saw Mapuche land sold off to wealthy families, white-Chilean farmers, big logging companies and the state.

Many Mapuche live in and around Chile's major cities, and in the regions of Araucania and Biobio, but still remain a highly impoverished community compared to the majority of Chile’s non-indigenous population, falling short in a number of social and economic factors: Mapuche people make around 60% less than the average Chilean, living in squalid conditions that lack basic amenities; more than half of the population have not graduated from high school, and older generations often don’t speak Spanish.

Indigenous Rebels

President Pinera’s choice to enact emergency powers, however, was not exclusively a response to the recent unrest in Chile’s cities.

Over the last decade, there has been a growing escalation in violence between Chile’s security services and Mapuche rebels in the Araucanía region. Frustrated with the government’s apparent inaction on the issue of land restoration for the Mapuche people, a number of small, independent but heavily armed rebels have established themselves as a resistance to the presence of both big businesses and the government in the region.

Many Mapuche people in Araucanía have seen what were once ancient forests inhabited by their ancestors for thousands of years – with a rich and unique biodiversity – replaced with profitable flora, such as eucalyptus and pine trees.

Seeking spiritual and political autonomy, as well as exclusive rights to the lands, rebels have employed a wide range of tactics, ranging from the inconvenient to the fatal. Whilst most rebel groups operate with little communication between one and other, more established groups like CAM (Arauco-Malleco Coordinator) have been accused of orchestrating attacks that result in deaths of civilians.

Moderate activists commonly burn crops, blockade roads and build settlements on private land owned by the farms and big forestry companies. However, more violent acts have become increasingly common. In early November, Mapuche rebels were suspected of derailing and destroying the contents of a freight train carrying cellulose used to make paper; the destruction of vehicles and equipment is increasingly costing hundreds of millions of dollars for the companies to repair.

Armed rebels typically ambush lorries to set their contents alight, but they have also started forest fires, destroyed large haciendas, municipal buildings and even torched churches. Insufficient political action in the region has seen civilians caught in the crossfire, though the Chilean government has, itself, been accused of human rights abuses, which has only aggravated the rebel movement.

These more violent actions are not, however, fully supported by all of the Mapuche population, and few are looking for a complete separation from the Chilean state. The majority rather aim at achieving designated self-governing areas and political recognition of their language and cultural bodies, something which has been denied to them for centuries.

The Chilean government has, in the past, attempted to acquire more land on behalf of the Mapuche population through the National Corporation for Indigenous Development, with a plan to develop the local tourism, agriculture and energy industries in Araucanía. Whilst many welcome the chance to develop the landscape, as well as opportunities to improve living conditions, many remain sceptical that such political promises will ever materialise.

A Cultural Shift

Mapuche culture has experienced a revival in the last decade, and there is a renewed sense of appreciation for indigenous culture across the non-indigenous Chilean population. This includes government-led initiatives to incorporate indigenous medicines into the Chilean healthcare system, alongside supporting the continuation of the Mapuche language, through which pre-Hispanic traditional knowledge is being slowly introduced into modern Chilean life.

Mapuche cuisines and cooking techniques are also growing in popularity, as many restaurants are now outwardly proud of showcasing indigenous cooking, while TV dramas based on historic battles between the Spanish Conquistadors and Mapuche warriors have become increasingly popular. In 2021, a Mapuche woman was selected to lead a committee in charge of redrawing Chile’s constitution – something that would have been unthinkable decades ago.

As is the case in many Latin American states, indigenous communities have long suffered discrimination, abandonment, and outright rejection by the countries that govern over them. The Mapuche’s struggle for recognition and reconciliation is a testament to the willpower of indigenous peoples across the Americas, who continue to push onwards for their freedom and respect.


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