The Skeleton in Chile’s Closet

Chile has made progress toward democracy. Why do its indigenous people still feel left out?


On May 12, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld an 18-year-long prison sentence for Celestino Córdova, a Mapuche machi (shaman), for setting a house ablaze last year, killing an elderly couple. The case has sparked anger among his supporters since he was first sentenced by a lower court in late February. The couple, Werner Luchsinger and Vivian McKay, had been involved in a dispute with a local indigenous group over land they owned in Chile’s Araucanía region, an area historically inhabited by the Mapuche indians.

On Feb. 28, Mapuche protesters gathered outside the Temuco courthouse to protest. "Thousands of us were slaughtered by Chileans and none of them went to jail," one of the Mapuches explained. But even despite this 130-year-old conflict, the machi’s supporters were convinced of his innocence and insisted that the trial was staged. And they have good reason to believe that the state security and justice system is not treating them fairly. Over recent years, a number of Mapuche leaders have been arrested on trumped-up charges, only to be released after months in prison on absence of proof. In February, an undercover police agent, Raúl Castro Antipan, confessed that he had infiltrated a Mapuche community and lit fires to implicate the community’s leaders on more than one occasion. The Mapuches argue that in convicting Córdova, the state is attempting to quell their demands for the return of their ancestral territories in the south of the country.

The Mapuches lost most of their land when they were incorporated into Chile at the end of the 19th century. But the conflict didn’t end there. Over the years, much of the land they had been left with and that had been registered in their names was usurped from them and ended up in the hands of timber companies and private landowners. After the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the state pledged to begin a new relationship with indigenous people, based on their fair treatment. The return of disputed territories to the Mapuches was a fundamental part of it.

However, the efforts at land restitution have been half-hearted. None of the democratic governments has been willing to jeopardize the interests of forest plantation owners, who are significant players in Chile’s economic growth. Timber is the country’s second largest export commodity, worth almost $6 billion a year. Moreover, the political elite is deeply invested in the industry. For example, the former governor of Araucanía, Andrés Molina Magofke, has a 42 percent share in a small timber company Santa Laura, worth $600,000.*

The government has neglected to give the necessary expropriation powers to the body in charge of buying back the disputed land, the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI). As a result, it has been locked in protracted negotiations with landowners, who, knowing that law requires the state to buy the land back, have been demanding exorbitant prices, according to CONADI’s regional director Julio Anativia.

Meanwhile, the Mapuches struggle to survive on tiny plots of land. Neighboring pine and eucalyptus plantations are making their situation worse, as these water-demanding plants are causing droughts. Araucanía, where almost a third of the population is Mapuche, is Chile’s poorest region, with the poverty level of 22.9 percent in 2011.* During Sebastián Piñera’s presidency, the government worked on a proposal called Plan Araucanía, which was meant to stimulate economic growth in the region — but it looks as though the new governor of Araucanía does not intend to continue the program.

It’s no wonder tensions are rising. As Jaime Huicahue, a CONADI councilor, explained: "The government has been warned many times of the situation at the Luchsinger estate."

Unable to find a solution to the land conflict, previous governments turned to repression instead. Countless carabineros (uniformed police) were sent to remove Mapuche’s "illegal" land occupations. Human rights activists reported that these evictions have come with indiscriminate violence against women, children, and the elderly. A 17 year old, Alex Lemun, was shot dead in 2002 while his community was occupying private land. Matias Catrileo (22 years old) and Jaime Mendoza Collio (24 years old) were killed under similar circumstances in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Under existing Chilean legislation, all complaints of abuse by carabineros are heard in military court procedures that are largely secret. Many complaints are rejected or left unresolved. The officer who killed Alex Lemun evaded prison and continues to serve in the police force. 

The de facto impunity enjoyed by law enforcement officers is in a stark contrast with the vigorous prosecution of the Mapuches who break the law. Under the Pinochet-era anti-terrorist legislation, Chile’s democratic governments — including President Michelle Bachelet’s — have held Mapuches in pre-trial detention for months, and handed out tough prison sentences based on the testimonies of secret witnesses. In one of the most emblematic cases, five Mapuche leaders were sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 for "terrorist arson" at the Poluco Pidenco estate of the timber company Mininco. In another case, three Mapuche leaders were sentenced to five years in prison for threats of arson against the estate of former agriculture minister Juan Agustín Figueroa in 2003.

Last year, a U.N. human rights investigator, Ben Emmerson, warned that the Araucania region was "extremely volatile" partly due to the misuse of this counter-terrorism legislation within the context of "an inexcusably slow" process of ancestral repatriation. He urged the government to make the resolution of this conflict a political priority.

Luckily, Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, seems to have the will to address the Mapuche’s grievances — some of them, at least. During her campaign, she pledged to never again use the anti-terrorist laws against indigenous activists, and to investigate abuses caused by the use of these laws in the past. She also promised to strengthen CONADI by turning it into a ministry, and to include recognition of indigenous peoples in a new constitution. Until now, Chile’s principal law has insisted that there is only one nation in the country.

The new governor of A
raucanía, Francisco Huenchumilla, also plans to help. Just a day after he took office on March 11, he apologized to the Mapuche people for the land grabs and acknowledged that the Chilean state owes them a debt. Himself a half-Mapuche, Huenchumilla is determined to persuade the timber companies to take part in resolving the conflict, asking them to leave the most critical zones. However, it seems like he shouldn’t count on the good will of the investors. They have made it clear that they are not ready to join the governor’s apology, saying that they, not the Mapuches, are the victims of the land conflict. At the moment, Huenchumilla doesn’t have any tools on hand to force them to cooperate. Despite his experience and resolve, he is only a designated representative of the president and he, too, will have to follow orders.

The president’s program looks good on paper. But how much of it will she be able to implement? All proposals have to be approved by the congress and many of them have crashed there in the past. This time around, Bachelet’s left-wing block has the majority in both chambers of the congress — but unanimous support for the president’s proposals is difficult and unlikely. And given Bachelet’s own record of using antiterrorism laws against Mapuches during her first term, the Mapuche aren’t letting their hopes fly too high. Recognition in the constitution was already promised to indigenous people during Bachelet’s first government — to no avail. Moreover, the Mapuches won’t be appeased by token recognition in a new constitution. They want it to include certain, specific rights, such as the right to self-determination, the right to land, and the recognition of ancestral territories and Mapuche parliaments.

The huge challenge for the new president will be to win the Mapuches’s trust, lost during years of ill treatment. Rural communities, for one, have very little confidence in politics. "The state is using laws to protect the interests of the rich. It favors the right to property over the right to life. There is a law on indigenous people, but not a half of it has ever been respected," Kelv Tranamil, a leader of the protest supporting Córdova, said. "The little we have achieved, we have achieved because our people fought and died."

Mapuche intellectuals believe the political class has a very limited understanding of indigenous people. As Mapuche anthropologist Rosamel Millaman Reinao explained: "The government’s policies are not at all addressing the fundamental problems. Land is not the only problem. There are historical, economic, political, and ideological problems, as well." In addition, the Mapuche feel that the government does not fundamentally care about indigenous people. "We have no economic power, no cultural power, no political power, and as such, we are irrelevant," says Mapuche journalist Pedro Cayuqueo. "The indigenous problem does not exist — there is only the problem of public safety. In the government’s eyes, we are penniless terrorists."

To be fair, in some ways Chile has gone further than many well-established democracies to protect the rights of its indigenous peoples. It is one of only 22 countries that has ratified the ILO Convention 169, a legally-binding treaty that covers a wide range of rights, including land, education, health, employment, natural resources and participation in public affairs. However, previous governments failed to fully implement the convention within its domestic legal system, especially when it comes to the indigenous people’s right to consultation on legislation or investment projects that directly affect them. As a result, Chile is not only violating its international legal obligations, but is also perpetuating the Mapuche’s distrust of the government and fuelling conflict between the two, and undermining the integrity of its own democracy.

It is crucial that Bachelet start delivering on her promises. The sense of injustice among the Mapuches is quickly turning into violence. As protesters in front of the Temuco court threw rocks at carabineros in February, they chanted: "We don’t want peace, we want our land!"

*Correction, May 19, 2014: Andrés Molina Magofke is the former governor of Araucanía. The original language suggested that he is the current governor. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, May 19, 2014: Araucanía has the highest proportion of Mapuche people of any Chilean state. This article previously misstated that most of Chile’s Mapuche live in Araucanía. (Return to reading.)

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