At the Roots of Mapuche Resistance

A backgrounder on the situation facing Mapuche people in Chile and a look at Canada’s role
More than 34 Mapuche political prisoners in Chile have entered into day 69 of a hunger strike to bring attention to their struggle and force significant changes in the way the Chilean state treats Mapuche people.

The hunger strike has entered into a critical and possibly deadly phase: Bobby Sands, an Irish revolutionary and a well known casualty of hunger striking, died after 66 days. Other hunger strikers have survived for longer, including Mapuche woman and ex-political prisoner Patricia Troncoso, who refused food for 112 days to protest the “predatory and inhumane economic model” in Chile and the still active anti-terrorist laws used to criminalize the Mapuche people.

The central demands of the hunger strikers and their supporters are that Mapuche people be tried in civil courts instead of in both civil and military courts, and that dictatorship-era anti-terrorist legislation not be used against them. Their struggle, at its roots, is in defense of their territory and culture, and in that way is similar to the struggles of Indigenous peoples around the world.

Indeed, the situation among the Mapuche people is dire. Their fight to maintain their freedom and independence dates back to the fist Spanish invasion of their territory in 1541. Since then, their land base has been whittled down to a series of reserves, which were broken up into individually held lands under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Since the end of the dictatorship in 1990 laws have been passed that recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples to land, however these have not been honored and Mapuche people have continued to organize against transnational corporate activities in their lands.

“Although there have been many Chilean and international policies implemented to strengthen and support Mapuche communities— such as funding for intercultural health and sustainable development programs, legal processes for land claims, international and national legal support against and compensation for human rights abuses, Mapuche language programs, etc — the dominant model of industrial development including foreign investment still imposes structures of power over, rather than collaboration with the Mapuche people,” Claire Sieber, an anthropologist who graduated from UVIC and has spent time working with Mapuche people, wrote to the Vancouver Media Co-op in an email.

Dams throughout Mapuche territory have flooded vast expanses of territory, and displaced entire communities. In the 1990s, Spanish owned Empresa Nacional de Electricidad (National Electricity Company, ENDESA) began a project of building six dams on the Bio Bio river in Pewenche Mapuche lands. Some of these dams were funded through loans from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the Inter American Development bank.

The effects of the damming and flooding of Mapuche territory continue to be felt. “Although ENDESA supplied some Pewenche in El Barco with new homes and electrical appliances (without free electricity or employment opportunities to pay electrical bills… I have seen gas ovens and laundry machines used as cupboards), and rectangular plots of land fenced with barbed wire (contrary to the semi-nomadic and communal land organization of the Pewenche)— they did so not taking into account the seasonal mobility and community organization of the Pewenche,” wrote Sieber.

“This past summer in Chile I met families distraught over new fences from outside (non Pewenche) landowners that prevented the families from taking their livestock to the summer grazing areas they have been using for generations,” she wrote. “The landowners were charging per head of livestock for the passage of the animals through their land. Prices Pewenche farmers in this area cannot afford.”

Also in the late 90s, in an earlier example of the criminalization of Mapuche resistance, forestry disputes flared up, and “in December 1997 the police fought Mapuche protestors from the communities Pichi–Lincoyan and Pilil–Mapu. The communities were claiming their lands, and this generated a conflict because the government ignored Mapuche demands,” according to Mapuche writer Aldisson Anguita Mariqueo. He notes that at this time:

The response of the ‘democratic’ government of Chile was to arrest twelve Mapuche under the legal umbrella of the Internal Security Law. This law, inherited from the military dictatorship, allows the security forces to search private residences and to arrest and interrogate any ‘suspicious’ individual without judicial intervention. Once Mapuche protestors were taken away under this law, no information was given to their families as to their whereabouts, intensifying the confusion, fear and hopelessness among their families and communities.

Road building and airport construction have increased the incursions into Mapuche territory, and continued to threaten the survival of the Mapuche people. In a 2008 report, Amnesty International noted that unresolved territorial disputes related to the extractive industries and logging have caused “tension resulting in violence”:

Mapuche leaders have informed us that police officers have used excessive force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, and firing shots from moving helicopters, including lead shot, In order to suppress the protests, to the detriment of the physical and psychological integrity of people who are often not involved in these actions, particularly children, women and the elderly.

The hunger strike that is ongoing in Chile today is a wake up call to the world about the criminalization of Mapuche peoples who continue standing up to defend their lands.

Canada’s relationship with Chile has long been based on mining and free trade, having signed a bilateral Free Trade Agreement in 1997. In 2008, Canadian outward foreign direct investment in Chile was measured at $8.346 billion. Canada’s priority sectors in Chile are among those that have most aggravated the Mapuche conflicts, including “mining, forestry, fishing and agricultural industries.”

Disturbingly enough, among other programs, between 2005 and 2008 the Canadian International Development Agency funded a program in Chile called “Ensuring the Rights of the Accused in Chile,” which “transfers Canadian experience in the field of criminal defence to help strengthen the reformed Chilean justice system.”

Colombian supporter Manuel Rozental writes that for the Chilean state to put Mapuche resistance on trial “…under anti-terrorist legislation is preposterous, and actually transforms the struggle for life into a terrorist activity, a precedent from Chile to the Continent and, indeed, the world. “

A global day of action in support of political prisoners in Chile has been called for September 24.