The Mapuche Conflict In Chile – OpEd


On 1 August, 2020, a group of civilians, in complicity with the Chilean national police force or the carabineros and right-wing hoodlums, violently attacked Mapuche community members who were on a hunger strike in front of the Municipality of Victoria, in Araucania. The attack was strategic, organized and preplanned with the occupied town halls of Ercilla and Traiguén also being attacked, Mapuche women and children being beaten and vehicles being set on fire. 

Mapuche is an indigenous community in Chile which accounts for 10% of the total Chilean population and 80% of the indigenous population. The Mapuche protestors had occupied government buildings for several days to show support for their leader Celestino Córdova, who is on a hunger strike in prison, and other Mapuche individuals who are political prisoners. All the incarcerated Mapuche individuals number 27 in total and according to Amnesty International, “The situation of the 27 detained Mapuche people on hunger strike is extremely concerning.” Celestino Cordova’s health is in a critical condition after reaching 100 days of hunger strike and he has said that “It will be a pride to give my life for my Mapuche people”. 

The attack on the Mapuche people was overtly racist with the assailants shouting slurs against the indigenous people. This racist attack was ideologically informed by Araucania’s far -right group, Association for Peace and Reconciliation of Araucanía (APRA) whose spokesperson Gloria Naveillán had said on the day of the initial attack, “How many are raising their hands to join us tonight in the Plaza? Bring sticks and everything you need to defend yourselves”.  Naveillán has been a former candidate for UDI (Independent Democratic Union) deputy for the 22nd district, the party which, along with the National Union Movement (MUN) and National Labor Front (FNT), is part of the National Renewal political party, headed by Sebastian Piñera, the current president of Chile. In addition to APRA, the Interior Minister Victor Perez, who is an ultra-right conservative and had been appointed in 1981 as the mayor of Los Angeles by General Augusto Pinochet, is another important actor involved in the recent Mapuche conflagration. On visiting the site where Mapuche agitations were taking place, Perez referred to the indigenous protestors as “funded groups, with an operative and logistic capacity, who have decided that peace and tranquility should not exist.”

Since the events of August 1, 2020, several Mapuche mobilizations have been going on. In Panguipulli, Mapuche activists took down the statue of Chilean ‘founding father’ Bernardo O’Higgins and Mapuche activists have occupied the municipality of Tirúa in the Bio-Bio region of southern Chile to demand dialogue with the Minister of Justice Hernán Larraín, in search of a solution to the hunger strike. The Communities in Resistance of the Malleco province at Araucania Chilean region and the Relatives of the Mapuche Political Prisoners have announced that the hunger strikers in the jail of Angol, capital of Malleco, have begun an indefinite “dry” hunger strike to protest the orchestrated outbreak of violence against the indigenous people. 

Capitalist forces have immediately discerned the rising resistance of the Mapuche people and the Multigremial Nacional, a business group organizing other sub-associations, has issued a statement univocally warning the indigenous people of the consequences of their revolt: “The 165 unions that make up the Multigremial Nacional, from Arica to Magallanes, express our categorical rejection of the violence that plagues rural areas in southern Chile, as well as some cities in the country…We demand for the last time all the powers of the State -Executive, Legislative and Judicial- act in the shortest term to regain social peace and make the rule of law prevail throughout the national territory. Otherwise, we declare ourselves free to take other types of demonstration actions in order to demand that the powers of the State solve the problem”. In the Mapuche regions of southern Chile trucks are being burned and José Villagrán, from the Federation of Southern Truck Owners (Fedesur), after meeting with the Interior Minister, Víctor Pérez, has said, “We told the minister that enough of burning trucks; another truck burned and the truck drivers will react,”. 

The Origins of the Mapuche Conflict 

The current situation in Chile is a manifestation of the long-drawn-out “Mapuche Conflict” that has been going on for centuries. Its origins can be situated in the 18th colonial war against the indigenous people waged by a centralized, expansionist Chilean state hell-bent on establishing administrative authority on indigenous soil. Instead of being culturally cloaked in any grandiose civilizing mission, the aim of the Chilean state’s colonial battle was to “rip the [Mapuche’s] poisonous arrow of savage revenge out of the heart of the republic”. Built on the brutal foundations of racism, the warmongering colonial forces dubbed the Mapuche people as the “lazy Indian”, “the barbarian”, “the drunkard”, “he who doesn’t have God or king” and “bloody bandits”. In 1845, the Polish geologist and mineralogist Ignacio Domeyko had termed the Mapuche as “a handful of people submerged in barbarism” and the leading newspaper of the country El Mercurio, which had earlier termed the Mapuche as “indomitable savages”,  urged the government “declare a war of extermination [against the Indians] and not think about trying to civilize them, because this has entailed nothing but a loss of life, time, and money. We will never be able to civilize the Indians.” In a similarly dehumanizing manner, El Mercurio had argued in 1859 that “nature had spent everything on the development of [the Mapuche’s] body, while his intelligence remained at the level of scavenging animals” and that “[the Mapuche] are nothing more than a wild horde, whom it is urgent to chain or destroy in the interest of humanity and for the good of society”.  In order to expand commercial agriculture, Mapuche lands were framed as “suicidal belts”, explicitly suggesting the need to eliminate these indigenous land systems which hampered the expansion of agriculture. 

The scorched-earth policy of the Chilean colonialists was bound to initiate a pure genocide against the Mapuche people living in Araucania. This fact was crudely and unambiguously acknowledged by the oppressing forces: “A war, initiated by a series of military incursions into indigenous lands, will always be destructive, expensive, and—above all else— never ending. . . . Because of the type of lands controlled by the savage Araucanians, and the fact that they can easily avoid or escape the clutches of our soldiers, the latter are left with no other option than the worst and most repugnant of actions. That is to say they burn down the [Indians’] farms, kidnap their families, steal their livestock, and [then] destroy everything that cannot be taken away.” True to the statements of subjugating forces, the war proved to be utterly violent and according to an indigenous individual, “They burned houses and took everything they found in them, and they reached the families who went to hide in the mountains. The elderly and women who weren’t taken were slaughtered like dogs.” The relegation of indigenous people to the “zone of non-being” was clinically called the “Pacification of Araucania”. 

After the military victory of the Chilean state, “the government formed nearly 3000 reservations in Araucania, and charged Catholic missionaries with integrating the native population into national society. Assimilationist policies challenged Mapuche cultural integrity, excluding them from the political decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods”. Through the creation of 3000 reservations in Araucania, the Chilean state was able to confine more than 80,000 Mapuche people within an area of 475,000 ha. The lands assigned to the indigenous people, called Reducciones (Reductions), were weakly protected, leading to 25% of the territories being absorbed by colonizers in the 1960s. Furthermore, whereas the Mapuche received only 17 acres of land, non-Mapuche settlers received, on average, 1,235 acres. Through the gradual dispossession of indigenous lands, the Mapuche were left economically eviscerated because, as Frantz Fanon said, “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”

 In addition to the degeneration of basic existence, land dispossession also leads to cultural loss since “Land, in the Mapuche struggle, is a transcendent concept. It is not simply a plot of terra firme demarcated by a vague set of boundaries, as it is in the liberal Enlightenment thinking that constitutes Western thinking. Land is a living, inalienable thing that serves as the basis for a community’s existence.” The twin processes of dispossession and cultural loss are omnipresent throughout the fragmented history of the Mapuche people and even today, dispossession continues in different forms, eliciting ceaseless opposition from the indigenous people. An analysis of this history of dispossession is integral to understanding the present-day inflections of the Mapuche conflict. 

Until the 1973 coup in Chile, the Mapuche experienced existential erosion with the administration of Salvador Allende (1970- 1973) being the exceptional period wherein a progressive indigenous policy was pursued. Through the Popular Unity Project, Allende was able to return 300 million hectares of land back to the Mapuche communities. Moreover, with the help of the “Agrarian Reform Corporation (CORA), the State also supported the technification and productive development of the land restored to the Mapuches by encouraging traditional harvest programs, cattle raising and milk production, as well as pine tree reforestation programs, programs to recover eroded land as well as manage forest potential.”

Salvador Allende’s progressive policies were abruptly halted by the 1973 US-backed coup in Chile which resulted in the 17-years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The Pinochet government declared that “the divided lands [reservations] will no longer be considered indigenous lands, and the people living on those lands will no longer be considered indigenous.” Moreover, the government also issued Decree 2.568, opening Mapuche lands to privatisation. The law dismantled communal land use and allowed each indigenous family to possess only six hectares of land. Decree Law 701 bolstered the dominance of capital vis-à-vis the Mapuche people by subsidizing companies that established plantations on former Mapuche lands acquired through privatisation. Timber plantations received 75–100% direct government funding under the dictatorship. 

Repression of the Mapuche people reached unprecedented levels during the Pinochet dictatorship with forty-one Mapuche being executed by the regime and another eighty being “disappeared”. The following statement by Cielo, 70-year-old Mapuche, neatly describes the terrors of those times: “During the dictatorship, our customs and ways of life were prohibited because the military thought that being Indian was equal to being communist. So during our Mapuche ceremonies, we would gather together on Tren Tren [a sacred flat hilltop] and celebrate our culture and spirituality, but we would always bring candles and pictures of Virgin Mary, so if the military came, we would tell the soldiers that we were only having a Christian church congregation. This was a clandestine way for us to defend our dignity and way of life, to protect ourselves against being imprisoned, or even disappeared just for being ourselves, for being Mapuche.” Therefore, the Mapuches were not only being killed for resistance, but were also being Christianized, colonized and westernized by neoliberal governmentality. 

Neoliberalism and Environmental Catastrophe

In the post-dictatorship period, no effort has been made to cut the Gordian knot of the Mapuche conflict and the historical conflict has continued to exist in the post-Pinochet period. It is smoldering under the neoliberal hegemony of the Chilean state which requires “that Mapuche natives either accept integration into the state (ethnocide) or to be branded as an internal, insurrectionary enemy.” Here, we can observe that a dualisation of Mapuche identity has occurred. Whereas, the Mapuche individual who accepts the integration into the state has been framed as the “permitted Indian”, the Mapuche who radically defies the state becomes the “insurrectionary Indian”. While the permitted Indian receives meager state benefits and empty multicultural rhetoric from the state, the insurrectionary Indian opposes the imperialist policies of the state, arriving in the forms of mining, hydroelectric projects and forestry. In the post-dictatorship period, insurrectionary Indians continue to exist, consistently resisting the environmental violence of the neoliberal state.

The Ralco Dam Conflict serves as a paradigmatic example of the environmental violence of the Chilean state, driven by the neoliberal agenda of unfettered capital accumulation and destroying the existence of the Mapuche people. In 1990, the National Electric Enterprise (Empresa Nacional de Electricidad) began the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams in the Upper Bío Bío River Basin, areas inhabited by the Mapuche Pehuenche community. The first project, Pangue, began construction in 1990 under the administration of Patricio Aylwin. No environmental consultations were held with the Pehuenche community and consequently, over fifty Pehuenche community members were forced to relocate as five hundred hectares of their land was flooded by the dam.

 The second project, Ralco dam, was rejected in 1996 by the National Commission of the Environment (CONAMA) after it was found that ENDESA’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) understated the potential for environmental and cultural destruction. CONAMA’s decisions were overturned by Eduardo Frei, at that time the President of Chile, who pressured CONAMA to approve the EIS. After this repulsive show of executive power, the Mapuche people went to the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) to stop the construction of the dam. Here, too, the president did not shy away from facilitating the hydroelectric project and in April 1997, he removed Ralco’s opponents from their CONADI, including the national director, a Mapuche leader.

 In 1998, after an authoritarian subversion of all governmental and environmental agencies and a spate of unilateral removals by Eduardo Frei, the construction of the Ralco dam began, threatening burial grounds and religious sites. Even then, two CONADI officials tried to halt the construction by announcing their opposition in July 1998. The president was quick to act, demanded the resignation of both those officials and replacing them with his supporters. But another obstacle remained. The new director of CONADI, Domingo Namuncura, a Mapuche, planned to vote against the Ralco dam, thus halting the entire project. President Frei, in an outrageous act, replaced the CONADI director for a second time, installing Rodrigo González, the first non-indigenous director. In this way, the Ralco dam was built, containing within itself the perverse logic of neoliberal development that endlessly undermines the strivings of “insurrectionary Indians” to harmoniously co-exist with the environment. The construction of dams in the Bio Bio River basin has proven to be ecologically catastrophic, vindicating the persistent efforts of Mapuche people to prevent the construction of the dams. Since the 1990s, “the Biobío dams have flooded more than 13,000 acres, displaced hundreds of families of the indigenous Mapuche people, turned long stretches of this once-unruly river into placid reservoirs, and caused abrupt fluctuations in water levels that have wrecked nesting habitat for native birds and disrupted the river’s natural rhythms.”

Apart from the Ralco and Pangue dam conflict, the operations of the company Matte Economic Group, owned by one of the richest families of Chile, is another example of destructive hydroelectric projects in the Mapuche regions. The company is attempting to restart the building of a dam part of the Central Hidroeléctrica San Pedro project. Previously, the construction of the dam had stopped in 2009 “when the Network of Environmental Organizations of Panguipulli made the double request for administrative invalidation and revocation of the environmental permissions of the project…there were omissions and flaws in the project’s environmental impact study, the impact on the river’s ecosystem and nearby communities wasn’t taken into consideration, and the project hadn’t taken into account the nearby Liquiñe-Ofqui geological fault, making it dangerous to drill into the rock.” The reckless despoliation of rivers by corporations is antithetical to the intricately spiritual and ecologically integrated epistemology of the Mapuche. Jorge Weke, the spokesperson, of the Koz Koz Mapuche Parliament, says, “Water for us is the veins of Mother Earth…We cannot cut our body’s veins, just like we cannot cut or intervene in the veins of Mother Earth to build hydroelectric plants.”

Large monocultures of pines and eucalyptus trees constitute another major problem for the Mapuche people. These forestry plantations are prevalent in Chile, where every year there are large wildfires in and around plantations. In January 2017, for instance, the fires destroyed 72,564 hectares of plantations, equivalent to USD 210 million. Forestry plantations in Chile are heavily concentrated in Mapuche territories and “It is estimated that by 1974 there were 480,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations in Chile…while by 2013 the figure had climbed to 2,447,591 hectares. In total 57.9% of such plantations are located in the Biobío and Araucanía Regions, where there is a strong presence of Mapuche. 37.7% of the plantations in Chile are located in the Biobío Region, representing 923,506 hectares, making it the center of forestry development in Chile. The Araucanía Region contains 20.2% of forest plantations in Chile, equivalent to 494,390 hectares”. 

Due to the creation of large monocultures, a severe ecological crisis has gripped Mapuche lands. The cultivation of eucalyptus trees, for instance, has led to water scarcity in the indigenous regions as eucalyptus absorbs huge amounts of water from the soil. These eucalyptus plantations “have reached the edges of the properties of small farmers and Mapuche communities, and…this has affected their subsistence agriculture. It has also affected their quality of life, due to the reduction of sunlight and the fear of fires and their consequences.” The application of pesticides to the plantations by planes has exacerbated the water crisis by poisoning nearby water sources. 

State apparatuses are apathetic towards the water crisis faced by the Mapuche people and have in fact, actively facilitated the pillage of regional environmental systems and the depletion of water levels. In 1996, for example, of the 1,357 mining concessions granted to national and foreign companies in Chile, 144 were on lands of Mapuche people and 75% of the rights of surface water available in these territories had been granted to non-indigenous individuals and only 2% were given to the Mapuche communities. In this way, the state is stealing water from the Mapuche and gifting it away as an exploitable bounty to different corporations. Another way of stealing water from the Mapuche is through the subsidization of companies, a tactic used by the Pinochet government. 

Arauco, for example, is a company “heavily dependent on governmental support in the form of favourable legislation and subsidies. A large part of this support was provided by the 1974 Decree 701, which promoted the expansion of plantations through generous land distribution and large subsidies. The subsidies covered 75% of the production costs of plantations and it exempted the sector from taxes”. Arauco has a long history of biodiversity devastation and its discharge of wastewater into the Rio Cruces sanctuary has led to the deaths of thousands of black-necked swans and its contamination of the Cruces River led to the mass deaths of fishes. Roberto Angelini Rossim, owner of Empresas Copec, the parent organization of Arauco, is merrily indifferent to this biodiversity destruction and his motto of “constant evolution” probably refers to this process of continuously increasing environmental devastation. In spite of the disreputable past of these types of companies, the Chilean state continues to finance them, thus perpetuating the seemingly endless oppression of the Mapuche people. 

State Violence and Capital Accumulation

Forestry plantations, hydroelectric projects and other types of projects geared towards capital accumulation have been able to establish their presence in Mapuche territories through the institutional support of a state that has securitized and militarized indigenous lands to enable the growth of a suitable “investment climate”. Arauko-Malleko Coordinating Committee (CAM), a militant Mapuche organization, encapsulates the essential role of the Chilean state in the age of global capitalism: “In view of the conflicts for lands, the State privileges the political economic interests, that is, it will do all it can to maintain political stability and economic growth, even at the expense of sacrificing the Mapuche people. The State made the economy the ordering axis of the various aspects of the life of the country; with political-economic arguments it seeks to compete in the international sphere, primarily in the framework of the transnationalization of the economy, where the capitalist-financial system has neither limits nor borders.”

Without state support, it would have been impossible for corporations to invade into the environment of the Mapuche community who are vocal in their defense of ancestral lands. Belén Curamil Cuio, while accepting the Goldman Environmental Prize on behalf of her father Alberto Curamil, had said, “The Mapuche struggle is an ecological struggle, it is a struggle for life and its continuity… We are people of the Earth, whose main mandate is to protect everything that makes existence possible, based on a spirituality connected with the natural elements.” The state, too, recognizes that the Mapuche people will not passively accept the mass destruction of their entire world and to quell the “ecological struggle” of the indigenous community, it has used a variety of tactics of suppression. 

The Chilean state has continuously used legal processes to entangle the Mapuche in a web of procedures and the most common accusations have been “wood robbery (usually, wood taken from disputed land), illegal carrying of weapons, attacks on (private) property (mainly sabotage on the agroforestry, such as the burn of trucks), and attacks against the police or other authorities.” Legal-procedural complexities for the Mapuche have compounded due to the application of the Anti-terrorist Law 18.314 that “doubles the sentences for some offenses, conditions pre-trial release as more difficult, allows the prosecution to withhold evidence for up to six months from defendants, and permits convictions based on testimony given by anonymous witnesses. Such anonymous witnesses have been called “faceless witnesses” since they dubiously appear in court behind screens so they cannot be identified.”

Constant use of Anti-terrorist laws has combined with deliberate irregularities on part of the various armed force of Chile to generate a legal situation of non-transparency and complete chaos for the Mapuche people. Operation Huracán serves as a good example for illustrating the complicity of police forces and agencies in tyrannizing the Mapuche community. On September 23, 2017, eight prominent Mapuche leaders were detained by the Chilean national police force and the Chilean National Intelligence Agency (ANI) through a verbal detention warrant that accused them of terrorist association. While the indigenous leaders were languishing in custody, the Carabineros fabricated evidence and planted false text and messages in the phones of the detained individuals with the help of Captain Leonardo Osses of the Special Operations Intelligence Unit (UIOE). When this was revealed, Carabineros General Director Bruno Villalobos and Director of Intelligence Gonzalo Blu had to eventually resign. 

Like the previous Pinochet era, the post-dictatorship period also consists of brazen killings against Mapuche people. In 2003, “an officer shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old Mapuche activist who was participating in a nonviolent occupation of a logging estate”. In 2006, “police fatally shot 71-year-old Juan Lorenzo Collihuín Catril and wounded two of his sons in a dawn raid in connection with allegations of the theft of animals in the municipality of Nueva Imperial. Military courts cleared the officers of responsibility.” In 2008, “police shot and killed 20-year-old Matías Catrileo Quezada, who was participating in the peaceful occupation of the Santa Margarita estate of Jorge Luchsinger in the municipality of Vilcún. The officer was found only to have used “excessive zeal.”” More recently, on 14 November, 2018, a Chilean police officer shot and killed 24-year-old unarmed Mapuche activist, Camilo Catrillanca. The police and media scandalously said that Camilo was “in the middle of” an operation conducted by the Carabineros to recover three vehicles that had been stolen in the area a few hours prior. These killings of Mapuche people are part of the state’s security logic, “generated within the framework of the dispossession of the Mapuche people to produce a discourse akin to the doctrine of “new threats” promoted by the Pentagon: a military, governmental, and security logic aimed at constructing enemies as diffuse as they are unreal (terrorists, narco-terrorism, organized crime) but which, nevertheless, while they are presented as imminent dangers to “national security,” justify the growing militarization of civic life.”

In 2010, the female Mapuche political prisoner Patricia Troncoso went on a hunger strike for 112 days, one of the longest in the history of Chile. Her narrativization of resistance and oppression during the hunger strike serves as a powerful symbolic weapon, representing the bare existence imposed by colonialism and vocally dismantling the ethnocidal assimilationism of the Chilean state: “the illegitimate violence of money and power, that imprisonment, persecution and criminalization of our cause, that police brutality, are not the way to solve the historical and political problem with our people. Because while you, the politicians, come and go, future generations of Mapuche people continue to germinate and grow. And the Mapuche will continue to resist your arrogance and domination. We will continue to struggle, we will continue to resist and we know that for each one that falls, ten shall rise up.” Patricia Troncoso’s words expressively describe the current conjuncture where the Mapuche people, covered with the rubbles of painful history, dispossession and ecological catastrophe, are rising to resist the violence of colonialism.

Centuries of an internal genocidal war against the Mapuche people has led to conditions of extreme poverty and precarity. Araucanía region has the nation’s highest poverty rate, with 17.2% of the region’s population living in poverty, compared to the nationally rate of 8.6%. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mapuche people are disproportionately suffering because of the lack of health infrastructure. In the Araucania region, there are “1.4 beds per thousand people compared to 2.1 nationally, and 4.6 ventilators per 100,000 compared to 9.2 national average.” These objective conditions are coalescing with racist right-wing violence to create a tinderbox of Mapuche revolt in Chile. 

This article was also published at La Progressive

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. He has published more than 250 articles on social, political, economic, and cultural issues. He is the author of the book "Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia".

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