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CHILE: Pressing Hard for Full Recognition of Indigenous Rights

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, May 17 2007 (IPS) - In the next few days, President Michelle Bachelet will throw all her political weight behind the motion for Congress to finally ratify the ILO convention recognising the collective and individual rights of indigenous people.

Bachelet will make the draft ratification law an urgent priority, obliging the Senate to vote on it within 10 days. This measure is part of the new indigenous policies announced by the government in the last few weeks, which, however, do not fully satisfy the Mapuche people, Chile’s largest native ethnic group.

“The draft law to ratify ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention 169 will be passed if the government manages to get the two further votes it needs from the (rightwing) opposition alliance,” Nancy Yáñez, co-director of the Observatory of Indigenous People’s Rights, told IPS.

The international instrument was approved by the Chamber of Deputies on Apr. 11, 2000 and awaits ratification in the Senate, where it requires at least 22 votes out of the total of 38.

Minister of Planning and Cooperation Clarisa Hardy told IPS that the government will push the measure through by the end of May.

If Convention 169 fails to be ratified now, the doors will be permanently closed to it in future. To prevent this outcome, the executive branch will push for a “thorough debate” in the Senate, Hardy said.

“Here we have a clear expression of the government’s will in this matter. We are going to do everything we possibly can, not only in the parliamentary commission (which will first discuss the draft law) but also with all senators of every party,” she said.

“But none of this will work unless the indigenous organisations, communities and leaders themselves lobby the senators to vote for ratification,” she added.

“I’ve already had a few conversations, and I think there is goodwill among the opposition. We can certainly count on the votes of the Concertación (the centre-left coalition that has governed Chile since 1990, and holds 20 senate seats),” said the minister.

However, Giovanni Calderón, head of the Senate bench of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), one of the two rightwing parties in Congress, told IPS that ratifying the Convention “has not been discussed for years” within the UDI, so no official position has yet been adopted.

Indigenous people are trying not to get their hopes up, because this promise has been pending since the first administration of the Concertación, which is made up of the Socialist Party (PS), Party For Democracy (PPD), Christian Democrat Party (PDC) and Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD).

“With the current turmoil within the Concertación, we think it’ll be easier to get votes from the rightwing parties,” Gustavo Quilaqueo joked to IPS. Quilaqueo is president of the new Mapuche political party Wallmapuwen (which means “people of the Mapuche land” in Mapuzungún, the language spoken by Mapuche people) and a member of the Coordinator of Mapuche Organisations (COM).

The commitment to speed up ratification of Convention 169 is part of the five major government policy packages for indigenous peoples up to 2010, announced by Bachelet on Apr. 30. The policies are the result of a process of dialogue begun in 2006 with representatives of the nine original peoples in this country.

Those who are most critical of the policy announcements are leaders of the COM, which groups together over 30 Mapuche communities and organisations. There are over 600,000 Mapuche people in this country of 15.6 million.

In January, the COM handed over a detailed document to the president, containing a number of proposals for political participation, the right to self-determination, recovery of territory, economic development, education, health, legislation and justice.

While Minister Hardy maintains that the indigenous peoples’ proposals have been “largely taken into consideration,” Quilaqueo’s view is that no more than 25 percent of COM’s requests have been taken into account.

Bachelet’s policy “is another example of the lack of political will, in the Chilean government and the political classes in general, to make real progress towards establishing a new relationship between the Mapuche people and the state,” the COM said after analysing the government’s latest proposals.

In the view of Mapuche organisations, the announced policies are “ambiguous and contradictory, without real political weight, and overall merely a continuation of what has been announced by previous governments.”

The five major goals of the indigenous policies are: strengthening indigenous community participation in the political and social spheres, recognition and expansion of indigenous rights, improving the quality of life of indigenous people living in cities, promotion of indigenous women, and fomenting education and culture.

The discrepancies revolve around the participation issue. Bachelet announced that her administration would draw up, together with the ethnic groups, a draft law to include new mechanisms and procedures for autonomous and representative participation by indigenous peoples in society and the state.

This would not replace the current institutions: the state National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI), made up of original peoples’ representatives, and five under-secretaries, which are harshly criticised by indigenous people themselves.

The COM is explicitly calling for “the creation of a National Mapuche Parliament,” but Hardy ruled out that possibility. “An indigenous parliament is out of the question. We believe that constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples does not mean recognising two states within Chile, and obviously in a democratic state like Chile there can only be one parliament,” the minister said.

She added, however, that “although I wouldn’t call it a parliament, we should indeed think of a way to guarantee ample representation of the nine legally recognised indigenous communities,” while she recommended that international experiences in that area should be reviewed.

A draft law for constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples will also be drawn up, with participation by both government and the ethnic groups. Hardy said that its terms must also be the product of a consensus.

“The opposition’s concern is that there should be no question of the state’s national sovereignty being diminished in any way, while the indigenous people’s concern is that the sovereignty of their peoples should be fully recognised. We have to find a formula that can reconcile these two positions,” she said.

The planning minister also said that a commission would be set up to monitor the measures Bachelet has announced, to make sure that they are effectively put into practice.

Members of the commission will include representatives from several ministries and government services, and Hardy hopes that indigenous people will also participate.

But the COM has not decided whether to participate. “The minister telephoned one of our leaders, but we won’t accept unless certain conditions are met. First of all, we want a formal invitation by letter or e-mail,” said Quilaqueo.

Secondly, “we want a dialogue with no restrictions on content or time limits,” and thirdly, funding for holding discussion workshops involving all the Mapuche organisations.

If these conditions are not met, the COM will find other ways of advancing its demands. Discussions are set to begin on May 25 at a political summit of Mapuche organisations in the city of Temuco, in the southern Araucanía region.

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