Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: No Solution in Sight to Mapuche Land Dispute

Gustavo González* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, May 6 2005 (IPS) - One year after a report critical of Chile by the United Nations special rapporteur for indigenous rights, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, there is little evidence of progress towards a solution to the Mapuche land conflict.

Observers say the dispute is likely to end up as one of the unresolved issues of the Ricardo Lagos presidency.

For attorney José Aylwin, director of the Observatory of Indigenous Rights, there persists in Chile constitutional and judicial discrimination against members of the Mapuche community, and a lack of protection for their lands in lawsuits that involve socioeconomic, environmental and cultural aspects.

The most controversial point is the criminalisation of the land occupations staged in recent years by indigenous communities in the Bío-bio and Araucanía regions, 400 and 800 km south of the capital, respectively, and home to the greatest percentage of the rural Mapuche population.

In the lawsuits against the ‘lonkos’ (chiefs) that have led the land occupations, the prosecution has applied Chile’s anti-terrorist and national security legislation, which opens they way for government and logging companies’ accusations of ”illicit associations” acting within the indigenous movement.

”The Mapuche who protests is treated much more harshly than someone from any other group. The lawsuits against the lonkos have been complicated. They don’t take into account the ethnic variable. They are stigmatised as criminals,” anthropologist Loreto Rebolledo, of the public University of Chile, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

On Apr. 8, the Supreme Court of Justice overruled a sentence from the Criminal Court of Temuco, which had absolved 16 lonkos from the Arauco-Malleco Association, one of the most radicalised Mapuche groups. The highest court ordered the case reopened under charges of illicit association, based on anti-terrorism laws.

UN special rapporteur Stavenhagen, a well-known Mexican anthropologist, said in his April 2004 report that the Chilean juridical system is limited when it comes to the defence of indigenous rights, and recommended that the Chilean government take legislative, administrative, political and economic actions to overcome the shortfalls.

Stavenhagen criticised the criminalisation of the demands for recognition of ancestral lands and the description of ”terrorist” used for the Mapuche leaders. He recommended to the centre-leftist government of Ricardo Lagos a general amnesty for the defendants.

But Jaime Andrade, deputy minister of planning and coordinator of indigenous policy and programmes, told the UN Commission on Human Rights last month that the government does not criminalise the Mapuches; it is implementing the anti-terrorist law only in ”extremely serious” cases and is working towards resolving the land dispute.

Aylwin said that if the government is going to heed Andrade’s recommendations, it should step back from its role as accuser in the reopening of the Temuco case against the 16 lonkos, ”given the inexistence of evidence that would prove the accused are part of an association with illicit and terrorist characteristics.”

The lawyer, son of former president Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), said the government and the Public Ministry do not pursue with the same zeal ”the crimes committed against the Mapuches, like those attributed to the agricultural landowners near their communities or the police abuses that on more than a few occasions have been recorded, affecting even children and the elderly.”

Juan Carlos Huenulao, behind bars in Angol (608 km south of Santiago) and facing trial for burning a forest estate, said in a public letter: ”For us there is no justice. We are Mapuches.”

The government defends its indigenous policy and cites among its achievements the transfer of 230,000 hectares of land to indigenous communities in the 2000-2004 period, the concession of 33,000 scholarships to Mapuche, Aymara, Rapanui and other indigenous students this year, and Chile’s Bilingual Intercultural Education Programme.

President Lagos also underscores the creation of indigenous municipalities in areas that are populated mostly by Indians, as well as the election of indigenous mayors in 18 of the country’s 345 municipalities in the October 2004 voting.

But the president has not been able to convince the Chilean Congress to approve a reform that gives constitutional recognition to the country’s indigenous peoples, or to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 on tribal peoples – what Aylwin says is ”the most important international instrument for the protection of indigenous rights.”

The lawmakers’ resistance to those initiatives, as well as the rejection of Mapuche demands for autonomy by most political groups, business leaders, some academics and the traditional press, demonstrate that the tensions have deep roots.

”We’re left with the feeling that the attempts the government has made in terms of indigenous policy have focused on resolving certain social and economic problems as stop-gap measures. But there hasn’t been a change in attitude that would allow them to rethink the type of relationship the Chilean government wants to have with the Mapuche,” said anthropologist Rebolledo.

(* Originally published Apr. 30 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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