Source: Mapuche International Link
Mapuche organizations are calling on international agencies to intervene, as Chile’s National Congress pushes forward a bill that would deploy troops to southern Chile in response to alleged terrorism threats.
On March 3, 2021, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies approved Resolution Project 1448, allowing President Sebastián Piñera to decree a State of Constitutional Exception and deploy armed forces to Mapuche territory in the Zona Sur (the southern zone) of Chile. This measure was announced following fierce lobbying by President of the Chilean Federation of Southern Truck Owners José Villagrán, who threatened roadblocks on national highways if President Piñera’s administration “fail[ed] to address arson attacks” against truckers in the Araucanía region. According to Villagrán and the Federation, these attacks were carried out by radical Mapuche insurgents. The Federation is well-versed in applying pressure to governments via the threat of roadblocks, having paralyzed the country during the Allende administration in the early 1970s and proved itself to be instrumental in sabotaging Chile’s incipient socialist project in the process.
Villagrán has insisted that the arson attacks on trucks—mainly transporting wood products produced by forestry companies based in southern Chile—represent the actions of well-coordinated Mapuche terrorist cells, and blamed the Chilean government for its inaction. This sentiment has also been echoed by local news outlets and the former intendant of the Araucanía region, Luis Mayol, who said, “People in Araucanía are calling out for peace and development. Over the years so much investment has been turned away due to security fears […] the Mapuche people want growth like everyone else. However, there is a small number of terrorists with radical ideologies and the resources to generate fear.”
The accusations of terrorism levied against the Mapuche range from allegations of arson attacks against trucks and cargo to burning down entire forests. Yet, despite these allegations and the contentious arrest and detention of several Mapuche spiritual and community leaders, the evidence backing these claims remains limited. Mapuche activists blame the fires on commercial forestry companies that have introduced non-native varieties of eucalyptus and pine to Araucanian forests, which have worsened seasonal droughts. Indeed, the introduction of non-native species poses a major threat to biodiversity in Chile, and diseases spread by such species have impacted the cultivation of other crops that the Mapuche depend on for food and traditional medicine.
Monterey pine—the most common species planted in Chile for commercial harvest—is particularly flammable. “Fire is a particular hazard to young, thin-barked trees and can be disastrous in dense plantations where persistent lower limbs become festooned with dead needles, resulting in an ideal situation for crowning fires,” notes the United States Forest Service.
Araucanía is the ancestral land of the Mapuche people, whose territories span across the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. Thanks to its rich natural and mineral resources, the area is attractive for investors in the forestry, fishery, energy, and tourism sectors.
After General Augusto Pinochet—who ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990—privatized state-run companies operating in forested land that had previously belonged to Mapuche farm cooperatives, regime supporters purchased these companies at bargain prices, quickly expanding operations by taking advantage of Pinochet’s neoliberal and anti-regulatory agenda. The ensuing loss of traditional lands left the Mapuche people unable to maintain their hunting and fishing-oriented livelihood, which posed a potentially lethal threat to Mapuche society. A 1974 government decree subsidized 70 percent of the operational costs of timber plantations; over the next 40 years, the sector received millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money. Three-quarters of this cash went to the two companies that continue to dominate the forestry products industry in Chile: Bosque Arauco and Compañía Manufacturera de Papeles y Cartones (CMPC). Arauco and CMPC “enjoy combined annual sales of over USD $10 billion, much of it from pulp and timber sales to the [United States].” Private landowners now control about three-quarters of Chile’s forested landscape.
Criminalizing a culture
The Mapuche have a long history of resistance to colonial occupation. Today, their struggle for the right to live on their ancestral land has been met with a militarized response and criminalization from the Chilean government. This response has included the deployment of a unit that operated under the name Comando Jungla, which received training in the Colombian jungle specifically to suppress Indigenous uprisings in Araucanía. This unit was responsible for the killing of Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old Mapuche farmer and grandson of a prominent Mapuche chief, who was shot in the head by a Chilean commando while driving his tractor to his home in the community of Ercilla. A 15-year-old witness to Catrillanca’s death has alleged that he was tortured while being interrogated.
Laws stemming from the Pinochet-era Constitution of Chile enable the state to target dissent among the Mapuche community. The 1984 anti-terrorism law (Law No.18,314), for instance, has been invoked repeatedly by the Chilean government, despite several international agencies deeming its application to be inappropriate in the context of challenging Indigenous rights to live on ancestral lands that are enshrined in international law.
Amidst the government crackdown against the perceived threat of Mapuche terror, outspoken leaders are frequently arrested and forced to attend court hearings that feature anonymous witnesses. The Temuco and Angol jails hold many Mapuche political prisoners, including Celestino Córdova, a machi (a traditional Mapuche spiritual guide, or shaman) who spent much of the past three years on hunger strike. Córdova stands accused of the 2013 murder of an elderly farming couple, although there is no evidence linking him to the crime.
The Mapuche community leader and winner of the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize, Alberto Curamil, who successfully managed to halt the construction of two hydroelectric projects on the Cautín River in 2016, was imprisoned on terrorism charges in 2014. Curamil spent five years in and out of prison, and continues to be a target for local security forces, having been arrested as recently as April 8, 2020.
The unsolved case of Macarena Valdés is also emblematic of the Mapuche struggle against powerful multinational interests. Valdés, a vociferous campaigner against Austrian energy company RP Global’s bid to build a dam in Araucanía, was found hanged in her living room, after receiving numerous threats due to her activism. An autopsy found that her cause of death was not suicide, determining instead that Valdés was already dead when she was hung. Doubts around the cause of Valdés’s death were amplified when leaked government documents revealed police intelligence operations explicitly designed to target environmental activists and gendered-violence advocacy groups in southern Chile.
Reynaldo Mariqueo, of the British-based NGO Mapuche International Link, expressed dismay “that the Chilean parliament has approved the resolution to authorize a State of Constitutional Exception on ancestral Mapuche territory. For the Mapuche communities that peacefully struggle for their rights, including the recovery of their grandparents’ land, this means more repression, more evictions, and raids, more imprisonment and death.”
It is important to note that the recent actions of the Chilean National Congress violate multiple international law charters, including the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of the International Labour Organization (ILO Convention 169) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both instruments require that national governments consult Indigenous groups via appropriate channels “whenever legislative or administrative measures affect them directly.” Therefore, the Mapuche have no alternative but to appeal to international tribunals, in an attempt to claim the justice currently being denied to them by the Chilean legislature.
As President Piñera seeks to appease those who maintain vested commercial interests in the Araucanía region, the rush to military intervention—rather than a committed effort to foster peaceful dialogue between the state, Mapuche leaders, and private sector interests—bodes poorly for the prospects of peace and stability in southern Chile. With Chile’s police and military forces mired in human rights abuses and corruption scandals—indeed, multiple international human rights organizations have documented crimes committed against the Mapuche by Chilean security forces—it is clear that they are incapable of resolving a centuries-long conflict that continues to claim Mapuche lives.
Carole Concha Bell is a freelance journalist specializing in Chile and Mapuche human rights. She is a PhD candidate at King’s College London SPLAS.