Chile reaches out to its indigenous Mapuche people

After decades of fractious relations between the state and indigenous Mapuche communities, President Bachelet is spearheading attempts at reconciliation, including plans for greater autonomy and official recognition of Mapuche culture.

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President Michelle Bachelet meets Mapuche representatives in Santiago at a ceremony marking the Mapuche new year, We Tripantu. Photo courtesy of the Government of Chile, via The Santiago Times.

When one thinks of Latin America’s 40 million indigenous people, the images that usually come to mind involve the highland Quechua and Aymara populations of the Andean countries, or the hundreds of (mainly) isolated Amazonian tribes, or perhaps the Central American communities that count the ancient Maya as their ancestors and which make up large portions of rural Mexican and Guatemalan areas.

One group that can all too often go unnoticed, though, is the Mapuche of southern Chile (with smaller numbers across the border in Argentina). Yet despite their lack of relative fame outside of the country, the Mapuche have an incredible and long history of resistance against western invaders, with experiences both similar and unique when compared to those of indigenous peoples across the Americas.

Now, following recent gestures by the Chilean government led by Michelle Bachelet, optimists among the followers of government-indigenous relations are hoping that a brand new chapter in this history is about to begin: one of reconciliation and justice for the Mapuche, who make up nearly 90% of the 1.5m indigenous people in Chile, close to 10% of the country’s entire population.

Many Mapuche communities, who make up close to 90% of Chile’s indigenous population, claim true ownership over their ancestral lands in southern Chile, which are now largely owned by foreign agro-businesses and wealthy landowners. Photo courtesy of The Santiago Times.

The Mapuche are believed to have settled in southern Chile more than 2,500 years ago, and they successfully repelled both the Inca Empire and then the first of the Spanish conquistadores during the 16th century. They were able to maintain this resistance until the latter part of the 19th century, when their territory was slowly but surely incorporated into Chile, with the rise of large-scale agriculture driving this lust for land. While the Mapuche were able to lay claim to the notion that they had been among the most successful of all indigenous groups across Latin America in defending their land from European settlers, by the turn of the 20th century they had lost vast tracts of their ancestral lands, forced off by ranchers and businessmen – some of them recent immigrants from Europe – and confined to much smaller areas which were de facto reservations.

Some Mapuche activists and nationalists have taken to leading a sustained campaign against what they view as invasions of their land, with tensions periodically boiling over and resulting in violent confrontations between activists and the landowners whose property comes under attack, with dozens of police officers, landowners, and Mapuche community members losing their lives. They base their claim on the fact that the disputed territories are their ancestral lands, but they are invariably owned by businessmen or foreign companies, who hold the title deeds to the property and are therefore deemed to be the legal proprietors of the land. One of the most notable instances in recent times came at the start of 2013, when Mapuche protesters marking the fifth anniversary of the shooting of a young Mapuche man by Chilean police attacked the property of a wealthy couple. Werner Luchsinger and his wife Vivianne McKay were both killed, with the story making headlines and bringing the indigenous question back into sharp focus.

One of the worst factors in keeping state-indigenous tensions near boiling point has been the continued application of a controversial anti-terrorist law, created during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), which is more or less only ever used against indigenous protesters and activists, and leads to secret court hearings and harsh punishments that far outstrip those meted out to police officers guilty of killing Mapuche activists, for example. Despite the return to democracy in 1990, successive governments have used this law in attempts to quell indigenous protests, despite continued pledges not to do so.

Mapuche members protest in Santiago. Photo courtesy of The Santiago Times.

The latest assurance by the government that it is prepared to turn its back on this heavy-handed approach to the indigenous question, though, holds a little more promise. On her return to the presidency in March, Michelle Bachelet, who served a first term as President between 2006 and 2010, during which she was criticised for continuing to employ the anti-terrorist law to put down territorial disputes between indigenous activists and landowners, made clear that she wanted to turn the page and usher in a new era of improved relations between the Chilean state and its indigenous population.

First up, she appointed the prominent Mapuche politician Francisco Huenchumilla as governor of the southern Araucanía region, home to a majority of Mapuche communities. Huenchumilla promptly made the most of his new role to apologise on behalf of the Chilean state for more than a century of oppression, neglect, and theft of indigenous lands. More recently, he has spoken out about the need to recognise that the conflict between Mapuche groups and the state is a ‘political’ problem rather than simply one of public order, and that the state needed to accept that the Mapuche were “a different people” within the “diverse and multicultural country” that is Chile.

Then, in June Bachelet marked the Mapuche new year by announcing a series of policies aimed at building bridges between the two sides. These include the buying up of land from large estates so it can be given back to historically displaced Mapuche communities, the strengthening of state institutions relating to indigenous matters, and setting aside a small number of seats in Chile’s Congress exclusively for indigenous representatives (as is done in Colombia, for example) so as to ensure better political representation for Mapuche and other indigenous people. Bachelet said that the initiatives would signal the start of a “new cycle” in relations between the Chilean state and indigenous peoples, with the hope that this would help to “settle an historic debt” which the state owes its indigenous subjects.

Also included among the policies is an initiative, in keeping with the International Labour Organisation Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ILO 169) to which Chile is a signatory, to carry out a six-month consultation period with the country’s indigenous communities on the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Matters, an Indigenous Peoples Council, and a Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Once this has been carried out, Bachelet said, these measures will be put to Congress, where the President’s centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition holds a sizeable majority, with the help of several independent but left-leaning members.

Chile has several other indigenous groups apart from the Mapuche, including the Aymara, pictured here, who come from the north of Chile – as well as from Bolivia and Peru, home to the majority of Aymara communities. Photo courtesy of El Ciudadano.

We’re at the point where we can expand and recognise the rights of the indigenous people of Chile”, President Bachelet proclaimed last month. “I said when I was a candidate [for re-election last year, a campaign that she ultimately won fairly comfortably with 62% of the vote] that Chile had a debt with multicultural Chile; and that is what we are working towards every day”.

“It has been nearly 25 years since we got back our democracy,” Bachelet said during a Mapuche new year ceremony at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, accompanied by indigenous representatives. “It is time to have the courage to take new steps with a view not to the short-term, but rather the (long-term) development that has been so difficult to obtain for our indigenous sisters and brothers.”

However, the latest gestures by her administration have been far from universally welcomed. Critics from both the centre-right political opposition and from within the Mapuche movement itself have attempted to poke holes in the government’s plans. While the Alianza opposition tend to frame the issue in terms of respecting the property rights of those who legally own the disputed land, Mapuche leaders have accused the government of taking on a condescending tone, with Consejo de Todas Las Tierras (Council of All Lands – a Mapuche organisation) leader Aucán Huilcamán saying that a Ministry of Indigenous Matters would only serve to perpetuate “colonial” relations between the state and indigenous people.

What indigenous communities want, the gist seems to be, is more autonomy from the Chilean state and central government, not further interference. In tune with many other indigenous movements across the region, the Mapuche maintain their argument that they are the ‘original’ inhabitants of their land, and view the largely Europeanised modern states that are the countries of Latin America as ‘invaders’ who have suppressed their indigenous cultural heritage. However, with decades of attempted land reform having failed to make significant inroads – the state has already been attempting to buy land and pass it on to Mapuche communities for several decades – one cannot discount the importance of the role that the Chilean government has to play in order to bring some kind of territorial justice to the country’s indigenous people. With Bachelet’s plans coinciding with many others aimed at overturning historic social inequities in various aspects of Chilean society – among them reforms to the education and electoral systems – the hope is that this latest attempt to rebuild relations with indigenous groups proves to be both more genuine than those in the past, and far more successful too.

The Mapuche flag