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Persecuted for centuries. They fight the regime and the church for their rights

The lack of representatives at the level of central government limits their participation in political life. Their occupation strikes, arsons and attacks on landowners’ estates destabilize the region. Who are the indigenous Mapuche people living in Chile, fighting for their lands? Why are they labeled by the authorities as “terrorists”?

Mapuche, one of the largest nations of South America, consists of 1.4 million people. They live in the Biobío River area in the Central Valley of Chile and also, to a lesser extent, in the Neuquén province in Argentina.

Before the conquest, they were engaged mostly in agriculture, cultivating corn, bean and potatoes. They were using llamas to carry heavier weights, hunting for animals, fishing and killing guinea pigs for meat.

Ruled by their leaders, they were building small communities, which have only later started to identify themselves as Mapuche.

Dependency in independence

Mapuche are known for their valour and cultural separateness from the Chilean. During the conquest they were able to reorganise their lifestyle and put into practice various strategies of resisting the enemy, such as using horses against the Spanish.

However after Chile gained independence in 1818, artificial borders were created between the countries were created artificial borders, that divided the community of Mapuche. Their territories were overrun, indigenous people were deprived of their land and displaced into the newly-established reservations.

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Although some sources say that it was a spontaneous and peaceful takeover of the territories to incorporate them into the Chilean state, for Mapuche their land posed a sentimental significance, as can be seen during the later fights for getting it back.

They are openly calling what happened by the name of forced internal colonization without taking the differences in lifestyle and customs into account.

Occupation of Araucanía in the name of the idea of capitalism

The Chilean state has repeatedly tried to take over Araucanía’s cultivated areas because of the fertility of the soil and the richness of natural resources. By controlling these areas, they wanted to include the inhabitants into the “civilized” market of Chile, hoping that the progressing globalization would acculturate the Mapuche nation by itself.

The reductions, or reservations where the displaced people were staying, gave them some chance to rebuild their community and cultivate the land in a traditional way.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Mapuche leaders began to notice a huge gap between the rapidly developing capital city of Santiago de Chile and other large urban centers, and the impoverished and technologically underdeveloped region of the Cautín province in which they lived.

Fight for equality

Help was sought repeatedly in the form of Chile’s new leaders. This was the case for leftist Salvador Allende, on whom they had pinned their hopes for drawing attention to the injustices facing the indigenous peoples.

It was postulated to restore the former lands, because without them the Mapuche were forced to work as a farm aid for wealthy landowners, who were robbing their lands and contributing to their prolonged poverty.

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During the presidency of Allende in 1971, concerns about the colonial character of reducciónes returned to the public debate. Reductions were settlements to which indigenous people were resettled. They were often led by monks, and were created by the order of the king of Spain.

Mapuche, together with the Chileans from rural areas, formed the Movimiento Campesino Revolucionario (MCR). It was an organization, which sought to implement agricultural reform. Mapuches also began to be called “campesinos” (rural population).

However, the agricultural reform imposed an obligation to pay debts in order for Mapuche to manage their own lands. It ultimately prevented them from getting out of poverty.

Despite the commitment and perseverance in the quest for regaining the taken lands, the Chilean government strengthened the fences. And it was robbing other areas historically belonging to the Mapuche.

The struggle continues

Nowadays, the problems of indigenous communities include racial discrimination, isolation, social stratification and the lack of proper representation in the media or politics. The lack of representatives at the central level of government limits their participation in the political life of the country, despite affiliations to the local groups.

The numerous occupational strikes, arson attacks and assaults on the properties of large landowners lead to the destabilization of the region. And Mapuche are more and more often referred to as “terrorists”.

To suppress protests, the police use force and also violate fundamental human rights. The antiterrorism law is abused, for example by the unjustified detention of representatives of indigenous peoples.

Although representatives of independent organizations with the United Nations in the lead openly speak of the lack of a terrorist threat in the country, Mapuche’s rights are still not fully recognized.

A chance for development

With the coming to power of president Sebastian Piñera in 2010, the Araucanía Plan was implemented. Its’ aim was to develop of the poorest region of Chile. This development was to cover areas such as education, health, infrastructure and the economy. It was also planned to modernize agriculture.

Piñera wanted to bring about a situation in which the Mapuche’s confidence in the state would be restored. He planned to eliminate the differences between the region and the rest of Chile within 12 years (i.e. by 2022).

Thanks to the Rescate Lector program, 2000 children received help in learning to read to catch up with their peers. 436 roads were built, thanks to which more than 2,000 families were provided with access to water.

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Under the “Yo elijo mi PC” program, 4,571 children received computers for their own. Internet and telephone lines were brought to 48 towns, and free Wi-Fi was made available in 29 places. Scholarships for indigenous Chileans have increased by 39%, and 439 schools offer the Mapudungun language.

Tourism was also developed in Araucanía, which includes attractions such as religious ceremonies, architecture and Mapuche’s cuisine.

CONADI became the most important state institution whose aim is promotion of Mapuche’s culture, granting lands, integral development and increasing their participation in social life. Thanks to its activities, the process of granting lands to communities was significantly accelerated.

Animosity and violence remained

Unfortunately, programs tended solely to the improvement of the economic situation. They failed to break the animosity to indigenous communities that continue to suffer from racism, discrimination and misunderstanding.

Araucania is still a place of conflicts and acts of violence. Those acts undeniably stand in the way of normalizing relations between the state and Mapuche.

The atmosphere of distrust or the lack of faith in the good intentions of the government are still problems. The Chilean state will have to overcome it in the future.

References

[1] Fernando Pairicán Padilla, The permanent rebellion: An interpretation of Mapuche uprisings under Chilean colonialism,

[2] Minority Rights Group, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People, Chile, Mapuche,

[3] Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Mapuche,

[4] Thpanorama, Okupacja tła Araucanía, przyczyny, konsekwencje [POLISH], 

[5] Michał Gulczyński, “Ameryka Łacińska. Kwartalnik analityczno-informacyjny”, Polityka rządu Sebastiana Pinery wobec Mapuczów [POLISH],

[6] The Guardian, Pope wades into indigenous conflict telling Chile’s Mapuche to shun violence,

[7] Oikoumene, A young Mapuche speaks up for her people.

Cover photo: Mapuche women during strike in 2011. Credit: Rafael Edwards.

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