Chile: Emerging Party Seeks Self-Government for Mapuche People

  (IPS) – Wallmapuwen, which means "people of the Mapuche land" in the language of that indigenous group, aims to formally become a political party in July this year in the southern Chilean regions of Araucanía, Los Ríos and Los Lagos. One of its main goals is to achieve self-government for the Mapuche people.

The proposals set forth by Wallmapuwen can help bring cohesion to the various Mapuche communities and organisations that currently follow different strategies, the group’s president, Gustavo Quilaqueo, said in an interview with IPS correspondent Daniela Estrada.

Defining itself as a nationalistic and pro-autonomy democratic, progressive, secular and pluralistic party, Wallmapuwen is seeking to recreate "Mapuche land" (Wallmapu) in the ethnic group’s ancestral territory in southern Chile and Argentina, said the 41-year-old indigenous leader.

Quilaqueo, a history and geography teacher and agricultural technician who holds a graduate degree in rural development, works as an independent consultant, small farmer and shopkeeper in Araucanía.

Taking part in Chile’s October municipal elections is the first goal set by the group, which took on a higher profile early this year when several conflicts broke out involving the Mapuche people, who number around one million in this South American country of 15.6 million people.

On Jan. 3, police officers shot and killed a 22-year-old Mapuche student, Matías Catrileo, when he was taking part in the occupation of land claimed by his community.

In addition, there was a 111-day hunger strike by Patricia Troncoso, an activist for Mapuche rights serving a 10-year sentence on charges of "terrorist arson," who called off her fast when she and several Mapuche prisoners were granted concessions, such as weekend leaves from prison, after negotiations brokered by the Catholic Church.

However, she briefly renewed her fast this month to protest the failure to implement the agreement.

On Mar. 4, the Chilean Senate ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. But it did so with a controversial "interpretative declaration" on article 35 that the country’s indigenous groups have opposed.

IPS: What is your take on the situation today for Mapuche people, in the wake of Catrileo’s killing, Troncoso’s hunger strike and the controversy over Convention 169?

GUSTAVO QUILAQUEO: We have reached the point that the lack of a real solution to our demand for respect for our rights as a people has been laid bare. However, there have been some positive signs since these events, like the strong solidarity expressed by a large part of Chilean society and the international community. That shows us that our struggle is just, and that thousands of people feel represented by it. We will continue to need that support, because the struggle is a long one.

IPS: Do you have any expectations or hopes regarding the work of the commissioner for indigenous affairs, Rodrigo Egaña, who was named in January by President Michelle Bachelet?

GQ: Before engaging in any dialogue with Mapuche organisations, the government should put an end to its repressive policy: stop the house searches and raids and other violent actions against indigenous communities and withdraw police forces from the conflict zones (where land disputes are underway).

In addition, the agreement reached with Patricia Troncoso must be fully implemented, and megaprojects (in forestry, energy and infrastructure) that are violating the territorial, environmental, cultural and economic rights of our people should be brought to a halt.

After that, we can establish an agenda that takes into account short, medium and long-term measures.

IPS: What reception has Wallmapuwen had among the Mapuche people and the rest of society?

GQ: Despite the colonialist prejudice held by some that the Mapuche can’t create their own political party, the response from our people has been very positive, because they feel the need for a political instrument of their own.

Many local organisations and communities have invited us to present the idea, and we have offered them the chance to create an alliance that would enable them to run candidates in municipal elections.

We have received many email messages from Mapuche people, but also from non-Mapuche individuals who feel that our project and ideas are in line with their own deeply-felt goals.

IPS: Wallmapuwen hopes to achieve, first of all, a statute granting autonomy to the region of Araucanía as well as adjacent municipalities. What would that mean in practice?

GQ: An autonomy statute would mean that, as a region within the political-administrative structure of the Chilean state, "Mapuche land" would have the right to govern itself by means of its own regional legislative and executive bodies, which would be democratically elected by all voters in the region.

The statute would make it an autonomous Mapuche region, where Mapuzugun (the Mapuche tongue) would be the official language, and Mapuche communities would recover their ancestral land. In the initial stage, a simple decentralisation of the Araucanía region, with a regional legislative assembly and executive branch with limited powers, would be a first step forward.

The Jacobin centralism of the Chilean state is archaic. In Chile there is democracy at the level of the state and the municipalities, but not at the regional level. The municipal governments and regional assembly could serve as areas for building up the strength of Mapuche pro-autonomy forces.

IPS: How can an autonomy statute be achieved in a region where the Mapuche people, although numerous, do not comprise a majority?

GQ: Wallmapu is a territory with a historically strong Mapuche population, which was independent until the late 19th century. The invasion and colonisation by the Chilean state is a recent development. And as you point out, the Mapuche population in Wallmapu, although not representing a majority, is large.

Most of our people are still concentrated in our ancestral territory. Here Mapuzugun is spoken and heard, here our presence can be felt, in the countryside, towns and cities, in Temuco, our regional capital.

Thus we are in a territory with significant cultural and linguistic particularities that require special treatment. It is only in our ancestral territory that we can exist as a nation. But the contribution from our brothers and sisters in the diaspora is also essential.

At the same time, an autonomous Wallmapu is not only a project for the Mapuche people. We know what it is to suffer discrimination, which means that this is in no way an initiative aimed against the local Chilean population. This is not a plan based on exclusion, but an invitation to build together. Wallmapu is the country of all Mapuche people and of everyone who was born there and lives there.

IPS: How do you see the year ahead, in terms of indigenous issues?

GQ: If we are talking about government policy, given the present scenario and the "signals" sent out by the current administration, we don’t foresee major changes and have little hope that progress will be made.

With respect to the Mapuche movement and our struggle, that is where our efforts are concentrated. The different strategies must complement each other, to achieve a minimal political foundation from which to make progress on our main objectives.

We believe that an intelligent, concerted effort based on our capacity for social mobilisation and civil disobedience will help us build, from here to 2010, favourable conditions to successfully confront the Chilean state.