Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

RIGHTS-CHILE: A ‘New Deal’ for Indigenous Groups

María Cecilia Espinoza

SANTIAGO, Nov 27 2003 (IPS) - The death of the elderly Jérawr Asáwer, one of the last few Kawésqar Indians of unmixed ancestry, who played an important role in preserving the customs of her people in southern Chile, highlighted the danger of extinction faced by several small ethnic groups in this Southern Cone country.

The day she died, Oct. 28, President Ricardo Lagos was presented with the results of a nearly two-year study carried out by the ”Historical Truth and New Deal (or Treatment) Commission”, led by former president Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), in the presidential palace of La Moneda, 3,120 kms from Kawésqar territory.

The study, which delves into the history of the native peoples of Chile, sets forth recommendations aimed at ”correcting the historic insensitivity” of Chilean society towards the country’s indigenous people, who comprise between five and 10 percent of the total population of 16 million.

The report proposes, for example, that the constitution be amended to explicitly recognise the existence and identity of indigenous peoples, that reparations be made for damages that Indians have suffered, and that concrete measures be taken to preserve native cultures.

The four-volume report also calls for recognition of the right of indigenous peoples to be guaranteed representation in parliament, form part of regional governments, adopt their own forms of organisation, and have a say over laws, policies and programmes that affect their cultures, territory, institutions or natural resources.

In addition, it recommends clearly identifying what land is the ancestral property of indigenous communities, and suggests that legal title be granted to the indigenous groups if the land is publicly owned.

In the case of ancestral territory that has already been declared a nature reserve, the Commission proposes the creation of a mechanism that would allow indigenous groups to lay claim to the property.

The report also states that the government should undertake initiatives to pay public homage and make symbolic reparations to the Aónikenk and Selkman ethnic groups, which have disappeared, with the explicit aim of preventing a repeat of the gross human rights violations that led to their extermination.

The Aónikenk, a sub-group of the Tehuelche people, were nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed the arid steppes of eastern Patagonia in southern Chile, in an area limited by the Magellan Strait, the Santa Cruz river, the Atlantic ocean, and the foothills of the Andes mountains. Aónikenk Indians were last seen in 1927.

In May 1974, the last descendant of the Selkman (Ona) Indians, a community of hunter-gatherers, died on the ”Great Island” in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of Chile.

With respect to ethnic groups in danger of disappearing, the Commission suggested that a special census be carried out, to serve as the basis for detailed plans that would guarantee public assistance, such as pensions and stipends, as well as measures to rescue the groups’ language and culture, to help ensure their survival.

The communities in danger of disappearing altogether are the Kawésqar, coastal marine nomads in southern Chile who number just 101, and the Yagán, another southern ethnic group that had only 74 members back in 1995.

The interdisciplinary Commission was made up of academics, politicians, members of the business community and civil society organisations, and representatives of indigenous groups.

However, indigenous leaders criticised the report as ”colonialist” and ”assimilationist” because it failed to propose self-determination by Chile’s native peoples.

They also complained that it does not mention the usurpation of their land, or the state’s political repression of members of the Mapuche community – by far the largest group, comprising around 90 percent of Chile’s indigenous people – who have been imprisoned under a law on ”terrorism”.

Human rights groups say the indigenous activists, who were protesting logging on land they claim as their own, have been imprisoned on the basis of trumped-up charges of setting fire to forestry plantations in the south.

Nevertheless, indigenous leaders said the report represents a step forward towards clarifying the violations of the collective rights of Chile’s native peoples.

Right-wing opposition lawmakers have resisted efforts to get seats in parliament reserved for the direct representatives of indigenous groups.

Conservative historian Sergio Villalobos, a winner of the National History Prize, said the idea of self-determination for indigenous people is ”very dangerous, because it would weaken the juridical and geographic unity” of Chile.

Initiatives in favour of self-determination are based on ”demagogy” and create ”confusion”, argued Villalobos, who said indigenous people have been voting in elections along with the rest of Chilean society for the past century, and accepting proposals for them to have their own representatives would amount to giving them ”privileges, rather than opportunities.”

But Aucán Huilcamán, ”werkén” (traditional spokesman) for the indigenous Council of All Lands, told IPS that he believed Villalobos was ”muddying the waters” and creating confusion himself.

”His opinions are out of place, and it is inappropriate for a historian to emit views of this kind, political views,” said Huilcamán.

The indigenous spokesman challenged Villalobos to prove, as the historian has stated in the past, that the Mapuche sold land that they were granted by the state. ”Let him show me 10 cases in which Mapuche Indians have sold their land in a conscious, informed manner, and I’ll show him 200 cases of usurpation of property,” he said.

The right-wing Institute of Freedom and Development also criticised the report, and said the idea that indigenous communities are entitled to their own territories does not help integrate them, but instead ”confines, segregates and condemns them to cultural immovability.”

It also questioned the association of ”indigenous” with ”rural”, maintaining that most Indians in Chile today live in urban areas, and have priorities and needs that have little to do with questions of territory and land ownership.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, adopted in 1989, recognises ”the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions”.

It also ensures their property rights over their ancestral territory, and the natural resources found in that territory.

The Commission underlined that indigenous peoples in Chile have lost the economic, social and cultural use of their ancestral land and sources of water, which are utilised by mining companies in the north and by forestry and hydroelectric companies in the south.

It also noted that unemployment and geographic isolation, associated with communication problems and difficulties in obtaining basic provisions, are issues faced by all of Chile’s native communities.

Meanwhile, increasing migration to the cities has led to a process of acculturation and racial ”mestizaje” (mixing).

”We are not saying they should stay in the past, but that with a development plan that is certainly more meaningful than what exists today, they will be better able to face the challenges of contemporary society,” Roman Catholic Bishop emeritus Sergio Contreras, a member of the Commission, commented to IPS.

Journalist Patricia Stambuk said the Mapuche have not only been involved in ongoing conflicts with transnational forestry corporations, but have also begun to gain a renewed sense of ethnic identity and worth, which ”provides better protection for their future.”

That is not the case, however, with smaller, weaker ethnic groups, which ”could end up being absorbed by the globalisation process and economic model” followed in Chile, she said.

The question of indigenous rights and demands in Latin America returned to the forefront recently with the popular uprising that led to the resignation of Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October.

In Ecuador, the increasing level of organisation and electoral participation of the large indigenous minority also played a strong role in the 2002 election of President Lucio Gutiérrez, although the government’s alliance with indigenous groups has since fallen apart.

And in 2000, nationwide demonstrations and rioting led by indigenous groups brought down the Ecuadorian government of Jamil Mahuad.

In Colombia, 80 percent of indigenous communities govern their own ancestral lands in the form of reservations that cover 27 percent of the national territory.

But Colombia’s Indians, who make up only two percent of the country’s 44 million people, are among the sectors of the population that have been hit hardest by the four-decade armed conflict, which involves the army, leftist insurgencies, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

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