Chile: Trashed Mapuche Communities Appeal to UN

Mapuche Dump

The United Nations has given Chilean authorities no later than the end of November to answer allegations of “environmental racism” filed earlier this year by a host of Region IX-based environmental and Mapuche organizations.

Mapuche Dump

Region IX Indigenous Groups Complain Of Environmental Racism

The United Nations has given Chilean authorities no later than the end of November to answer allegations of “environmental racism” filed earlier this year by a host of Region IX-based environmental and Mapuche organizations.

In a letter dated Aug. 24, Juan Antonio Martabit Scaff of the United Nation’s permanent mission in Geneva, Switzerland called on the Chilean government to provide detailed information about numerous garbage dumps and sewage treatment facilities Mapuche groups claim are disproportionately concentrated near indigenous communities. The organizations, which filed their complaint this past January, say the waste facilities also fail to meet minimum health and environmental standards.

“Please provide information about the measures taken to guarantee the dumps currently operating in the Araucanía Region meet the requirements established under both current environmental laws and the Indigenous Law 19.254, which among other things stipulates the right of communities who are directly affected by such projects to be consulted,” the letter reads.

The United Nations, which is giving the Chilean government until Nov. 30 to provide the information, asked the state to provide scientific analysis of the various dumps and water treatment facilities in question. The letter also pointed out that Chile has failed to submit the last four reports it is supposed to file with the U.N. Human Rights Committee on a biennial basis. The international body is now demanding that Chile submit a single compilation report no later than June 30, 2008.

Roughly 20 percent of the land in Chile’s Region IX belongs to Mapuches, which make up approximately 26 percent of the area’s total population. Nevertheless, close to 70 percent of the area’s garbage dumps and all 10 of its sewage treatments plants are located on or near those lands. Together the waste facilities affect directly affect more than 3,000 people living in 50 Mapuche communities, according to the Environmental Rights Action Network (RADA), the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, the Koyam Newen group and other organizations behind the allegations.

“It’s not a coincidence,” says Alejandra Parra of the Temuco-based Koyam Newen Mapuche group. “In some cases maybe it wasn’t intentional, but certainly there was little regard for protecting the communities. The (waste facilities) are in many cases located very close to people’s houses, and in terms of population, the Mapuche communities are very dense. These are in fact the worst places to set up a dump… It seems to us that they’re protecting the rights of other people more than they are the rights of Mapuche communities.”

Because of their proximity to the dumps, she says, community residents face a long list of health and safety risks. Not only must they endure the constant stench, but they also suffer from water and insect-borne illnesses. “There’s smoke as well. Often they burn the garbage in order to reduce its volume. The smoke is super toxic and blows into people’s houses,” says Parra.

Packs of wild dogs are another major problem. Attracted by the garbage, large groups of dogs often wander into nearby communities, where they attack and kill domestic animals: chickens, sheep – even cows. The dumps also support unnaturally large rat populations.

“The communities have been suffering the impacts for a long time, because the majority (of the waste facilities) have been operating for more than 10 years. They’re dumps that went in before Chile established its environmental impact evaluation system, and before the Indigenous Law was passed,” says Parra.

Over the years Koyam Newen, RADA and other organizations have repeatedly brought the issue to the attention of local, regional and even national authorities. Their efforts, however, have had little affect, as new dumps and sewage treatment plants continue to be approved for the area. Out of options here in Chile, the groups turned the United Nations as a last resort.

“We brought our complaints to the United Nations because here in Chile all of our requests were denied. In the case of one sewage treatment plant we went to the Supreme Court, the Appeals Court, we’ve had the project declared unconstitutional, etc. We ran out of options. No one would listen to us,” says Claudio Sandoval, an activities coordinator with RADA.

RADA and its allies aren’t looking for a big showdown with the Chilean government, according to Sandoval. Instead they’re hoping for concrete solutions: they want the government to repair the environmental damage, leave the land “as it was years before” and guarantee that the region’s Mapuche communities aren’t being poisoned and infected with diseases.

“The fact that the Committee sent the letter to the Chilean state asking for answers shows that our complaints are being considered. There could be a good outcome,” says Alejandra Parra. “It would be a huge step forward for us, because it would mean the Chilean state would have to seriously consider the harm that’s been done to our communities.”

Benjamin Witte is a U.S.-Canadian freelancer currently living and working in Santiago, Chile. A former editor of the Santiago Times, he has also worked in Costa Rica with The Tico Times.(benwitte(at)