Mapuche Communities in Chile: Not Underground, Still Fighting For Their Ground

This year Chile celebrated the bicentennial year of its independence, 20 years since the return of elections, and its first transition of power during this democratic regime. These events received worldwide attention, but events underground have dominated international news coverage: the devastating earthquake in February; and the successful efforts to free the miners who were trapped underground since early August. However, there is another deeper wound in Chile that has not healed, and is on the surface. The miners were trapped underground, but in southern Chile, indigenous Mapuche communities are still fighting for the right to their own ground.

Days before the bicentennial celebrations, the streets of Temuco echoed with shouts of “Free them; free the Mapuche who are fighting back!”. The protest march started outside the jail where many Mapuche were on hunger strike. The setting of the jail is steeped in symbolism. Firstly, it is right below Cerro Ñielol, the hill where the Mapuche signed a treaty with the Chilean Government in 1881 to stop what newspapers of the day called the ‘war of extermination.’ Secondly, a block away is a memorial to the detained (tortured), disappeared and murdered during the Pinochet 1973-90 military dictatorship. Many are Mapuche names: one of the events that precipitated the coup was Salvador Allende’s land reform program to return lands stolen from Mapuche communities.

During Pinochet’s dictatorship, anti-terrorism Law 18314 was passed. The memorial commemorates what those in Chile and around the world know: the Dictatorship acted outside the law, not within it. But the protesters were chanting about Law 18314: in the post-September 11, 2001 world, democratically elected Chilean Governments dusted it off the law to arrest Mapuche activists and try them in military courts. At the time, Mapuche activists were blocking roads and vandalising the trucks of logging companies and dam builders who they considered were destroying ‘walmapu’, their ancestral lands. But these are not ‘home-grown’ terrorists: these are a fiercely independent indigenous people who are still proud of the facts that that the Spanish colonisers couldn’t beat them, and that they resisted the Chilean Government until the railroad was built and poured troops out into their land.

The Mapuche struggle is part of everyday life throughout the country: news teams reported from outside the Temuco jail each day, just as they did in front of the mine rescue effort. The bright multicoloured Mapuche flag stands out, even in the sea of Chilean flags for the bicentennial. However, many ethnic Mapuche are not involved in this struggle. Many live in poverty, unemployed and alienated in the outskirts of Santiago, their lives slowly destroyed by alcoholism and gambling. At the start of the 20th Century, a lonco (chief) lamented that these problems only began after the Mapuche became friends of the Chilean state; the recent hunger strikers took up this call and resisted.

The Chilean Government did everything it could to free the miners trapped underground, but has not done enough to deal with the plight of the Mapuche, alienated from and oppressed by the State they live in. During the hunger strike, Mapuche leaders called for dialogue; Sebastian Piñera, Chile’s President called for dialogue; any other groups who want their voices to be heard said they’d facilitate dialogue. However, it took 82 days for the hunger strikers to achieve a Government promise to stop using the anti-terrorism law. Dialogue on the plight of the Mapuche and their land is finally about to commence.

Following the 1881 Treaty, Chile only gave land titles to half the eligible Mapuche, and only for their cultivated land: none for the forests they used for foraging and which they consider their spiritual home. Perhaps worse, 31% of these non-transferable land titles no longer remain in Mapuche hands. As such, the Chilean state has the legal obligation, the capacity, and the moral imperative to act. Instead, resistant Mapuche peoples and organizations have been officially treated as security threats and ignored in the official bicentennial celebrations, which showed a ‘clean cut’ version of Chilean identity that didn’t reflect the reality of indigenous history, present, and the identity of close to 15% of the Chilean population.

The government’s actions in response to the situation of the miners and the Mapuche peoples further show this double standard. The difference in the plights of the two groups is that the miners were trapped by the repercussions of the neoliberal economic model that has Chile made famous for free market economists; whereas the Mapuche peoples, like indigenous people in many other parts of the world, are trapped by modernisation and the capitalist system imposed on them by the Chilean State and progressive waves of globalisation. The miners got out because the creative forces of capitalism triumphed over Mother Nature; but so far there has not been a way out for Mapuche communities. The miners were trapped underground, but despite the obstacles, the Mapuche are still fighting for their ground.

This year has been both a time of celebration and a time of trouble for Chile. Cerro Ñielol, site of the treaty between the Chilean state and the Mapuche is also famous for the flowering of the copihue, Chile’s national flower. The next time it flowers will be a time of celebration for the rescue of the miners in the North and the repeal of the anti-terrorism law and military courts against the Mapuche. The only hope for a more permanent resolution to this situation is for the Chilean government to pursue a real dialogue for the return of ‘walmapu’ to the Mapuche, and new, more inclusive image of what it means to be Chilean.

The “Museo Regional de la Araucania” in Temuco, Chile has an excellent display on Mapuche history, which helped to inform this article. LASNET (Latin American Solidarity Network) in Australia hold talks and conferences that highlight the situation of the Mapuche.

Biography: Jeremy Tarbox is a 2009-2011 Rotary World Peace Fellow from Australia, studying a Masters in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina that is focussed on International Development in Latin America. During 2007 he spent 6 months in Chile studying Chilean and Latin American history as part of a university exchange, and returned in September, 2010.