Mapuche Community Fights Airport

The indigenous community Ricardo Rayin is about 18 km south of the city of Temuco, in the Araucanía region of Chile .   Araucanía, Chile‘s 9th region, 600 km south of Santiago, is home to 23.5 percent of the 604,349 Mapuches in the country. The Ricardo Rayin community is made up of 52 families, who occupy 270 hectares, who live by farming and livestock.  According to a report by community leader Richard Caifal, ”For the development of these activities it is extremely important that the marshes and the environment in general are not polluted by foreign elements that would deteriorate these people’s quality of life.”

However, a government initiative to construct an international airport in the nearby town of Freire, one that will  fulfill international standards and even supposedly lessen the environmental pollution that the city of Temuco produces today has generated conflict with the community of Ricardo Rayin and others.  According to the community, the construction of the airport will cause the marshes to flood, damaging indigenous land.  The community’s land title dates from 1901, when the Chilean state made the leader of the community, Ricardo Rayin, accept the title.  The 12 families who own the land where the airport is to be built are not indigenous, but many feel that the land now part of the Huilquilco Ranch was usurped from the formerly 275 hectares of Mapuche land.

The airport is one of several ‘bicentennial works’ initiated by the former administration of Ricardo Lagos, to celebrate Chile‘s 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain.   The government studies on environmental impacts carried out by government institutions, especially the MOP (Ministry of Public Works), conclude that the best sector for the construction of a new international airport is the Pelales sector.  However, in this study of environmental impact, officials have not considered opinions of the affected indigenous communities in a pertinent way, and have excluded them from the civic processes. According to Caifal, ” this megaproject will bring with it a serious environmental pollution problem that will affect not only the Rayin community, but other Mapuche communities as well.” Indigenous communities affected include: Federico Aclaman, Juan Huenchual, Ricardo Rayín, Dollinco, Fermín Manquilef, Juan Rañileo as well as Indigenous communities in the Mahuidanche sector. Four months ago the Fermín Manquilef community began to apply for titles of ownership in the area where the airport is to be built.

The Ayun Mapu Association (Joyful Land, in the Mapuzungun language) is made of 8 Mapuche communities (there are 23 near the future airport) which coordinated to oppose the draft project presented by the government.  On November 15 members of Ayun Mapu blocked roads while the environmental impact study was being approved by the governmental Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA).   All community delegates voted against it.  The current proposal is to expropriate 495 hectares of land from the town of Huilquilco in 2007 and to hold an international bidding process for construction to begin in 2008. The government institutions involved have signaled in innumerable opportunities that according to their studies, there will be no kind of harm to the environment, and in no case will the indigenous communities find themselves affected, as a consequence of which, they are not presently contemplating means of mitigation, compensation of development plans that would rectify in some way the social, cultural and environmental impacts that the construction of a megaproject of this scope would provoke.

The existing airport is in the sector of Maquehue, 2 kilometers south west of the city, in the outskirts of the urban center, and constitutes a focus of pollution risk for the residents.  At the same time, its location prevents the expansion of the runways, which would allow for an expansion of operational capacity.  Caifal claims that the land that borders the airport doesn’t meet with technical conditions necessary for realizing the aforementioned works, while Daniela Estrada from IPS writes that the expansion of the existing airport would require expropriating land from other Mapuche communities nearby.

 Towards the end of 2005, during the election year, several authorities came to offer solutions to the problem ”These have been considered as a joke to the affected communities, as they offered improvements to some of the roads and the installation of potable water and electric lights to some families in the sector, a few small projects which would be funded by the regional development funds”

Mapuches have some legal protection, such as Law 19.300, which vaguely protects rights, but not environmental rights.  Many activists are pointing to article 34 of law 19.253, which indicates that ”the services of the administration of the state and the organizations of territorial character, when dealing with materials that interfere or relate to indigenous matters must listen and consider the opinion of the indigenous organizations recognized by this law,” to emphasize the lack of Mapuche participation in the civic process.

 The Ayun Mapu Association is against the noise and emission pollution from the airplanes, and don’t believe that the environmental study was thorough enough.   "Mapuche communities and the Mapuche people in general are still waiting for an environmental policy and a real indigenous policy with effective laws and a legal framework that respects the fundamental rights," reads a communiqué presented by the group, adding that "an engineering work cannot be built based on forced political decisions, but on scientific and technical criteria, otherwise we will continue to witness fallen bridges, flooded and wrongly-built houses, overflowing dams, dead swans, dumps that cause pollution and death and a general natural environment that according to experts, has an expiration date".

 While Ayún Mapu will present a petition against the COREMA decision, a stay for protection with the Chilean courts, and another with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Daniela Estrada writes that, according to Ayún Mapu’s Caifal, "The communities are intimidated, since any demonstration by Mapuches is categorised as a terrorist act."  IN the last few years, said Caifal in an interview with Azkintuwe, the struggles of many different organizations have been criminalized.  ”This makes us reflect about our forms of struggle and the way that we can advance without being repressed and arrested.  So any serious action we have taken, we have tried to make sure that it hasn’t fallen into the media stigma of being violent, extremist, terrorist, and even then some medias like the Mercurio have portrayed us that way. We think that we are capable of combining these kinds of fighting, which are not contradictory, but rather compliment a movement of social character like ours.”